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What the Kelp? A Cultural Exploration of this Humble Yet Mighty Seaweed

What the Kelp? A Cultural Exploration of this Humble Yet Mighty Seaweed

Kelp is a vital component in keeping our oceans happy and healthy, but its influence on our daily lives is greater than we realize.

Illustrations by Alex Maertz.

There was a time when one of my greatest fears was seaweed. Floating in the middle of a deep, dark lake, my limbs outstretched on the surface, I would imagine the slimy grip of a seaweed tendril grabbing me from below. Like many kids who grew up spending time in the water, I understood that seaweed—these ominous, disembodied tentacles—was something to dread. 

When I moved to the west coast, I was confronted with the reality of co-existing with huge quantities of kelp. Though perhaps not as scary as their lake counterparts, kelp (a type of large brown algae seaweed) thrives in cold coastal waters. There are about 30 different kinds, and they grow most abundantly in the Pacific from as far North as the Aleutian Islands to the southern tip of Baja California Sur and beyond.

Still, when I first started surfing notoriously kelpy breaks, I would take a moment to steel myself for the paddle. I would take slow deep breaths as I went, and soon the fear faded to what feels like a now funny, distant childhood memory—even another life. These days, it’s not as jarring to encounter kelp in the wild, rogue feathery fronds cruising by. I almost welcome them, their delicate yet strong stalks and billowing tendrils dancing gracefully in the water. 

Kelp is something that most Islanders are familiar with. Its presence around the Island is constant, but the ways we encounter it vary—it bobs in the water along rocky coastlines and washes up in small bundles on sandy beaches as the tide recedes. We walk our dogs past it, paddle watercraft above it and the brave swim through it. Sometimes it’s rude enough to get tangled in our propellers or act as an unwelcome speed bump under a surfboard. It’s a key player and vital component in keeping our local ocean happy and healthy.

Kelp forests cover about 25 per cent of the world’s coastlines and are one of the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on earth. It’s also one of the fastest-growing plants on the entire planet. Able to grow half a metre per day, kelp can reach close to 90 metres in length. Although each type has its own defining features and structure, most kelp have the same basic parts—roots, known as holdfasts; stipe, which are long, hollow stalks; and fronds, which are like flat, sometimes serrated or blade-like leaves.

On a biological level, vast kelp forests provide a rich world of life below the surface. The diversity of these forests or beds (the name for smaller patches of kelp) is integral to so many aspects of our waters. Kelp forests provide shelter for thousands of species to thrive, and many juvenile fish and sea creatures grow up in the protection of these diverse ecosystems. And while rising sea temperatures are starting to show their effects on the kelp population near the southern hemisphere, the impact on our kelp forests isn’t as pronounced (yet). 

Luckily, there’s a growing awareness of kelp and all its potential. From fertilizing our gardens and being sources of nutrients (considered by most to be a superfood) to alternative packaging solutions and even a possible renewable energy source. With a handful of kelp producers on Vancouver Island already in existence, it’s only a matter of time before more Islanders start to explore all the possibilities of kelp. 

In fact, the first commercial kelp farm in North America was founded here on Vancouver Island. Canadian Kelp, out of Bamfield, supplies plenty of large and small wholesale customers across the country. The founder, Louis Druehl, is an author and recognized expert on kelp biology—he even has a genus of kelp named after him: Druehlago cuneata. Louis, along with his wife Rae Hopkins, runs their thriving kelp farming business, along with teaching courses on the topic out of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. When he’s not immersed in the world of seaweed, out in the field teaching, or harvesting, he’s been known to pen the odd kelp inspired poem.

Courtesy of Louis Druehl

The amorous feelings toward kelp aren’t unique to Louis; anecdotes by a number of people uncovered during the research of this piece brought to light some interesting uses. For the greater good, we’ll leave those to the imagination, but its versatility seems to know no bounds.

As our collective social focus continues to veer more and more toward health, wellness and sustainability, so too does our need for access to the types of products that support it. Some tout kelp as the new kale, although that’s somewhat shortsighted as kelp has been on the radar (read: in commercial production) for over a century. It’s long been a common ingredient and staple in Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisine, and there is much speculation about the positive health benefits, one of which is a significantly lower rate of breast cancer in Japanese women. Kelp boasts a plethora of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D and E, as well as zinc, iodine, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper and calcium. It has the highest natural concentration of calcium of any food (yes, even milk). Historically, brown kelp was used to treat goiters as far back as medieval times due to its high concentration of iodine. 

In a world that’s feeling the strain of consumption, it’s the perfect time to look close to home for options to support us humans while also sustaining the planet. Finding natural resources that are low-impact to produce and won’t take a toll on the environment is paramount. Recently, there has been promising research that shows kelp farms could help counteract the negative effects of fish farms. Kelp seedlings planted closest to fish pens grew almost 50 per cent faster than those planted further afield. As kelp grows strong and healthy, it purifies the water around it, so it can absorb much of a fish farm’s waste, not to mention sucking up planet-warming carbon dioxide.

Speaking of renewable resources, consider this: seaweed farming requires no land, no freshwater and zero external inputs like feed or fertilizer. Heck, one of the produced outputs is fertilizer! It doesn’t produce methane emissions or nitrogen run-off and it has the potential to mitigate ocean acidification by absorbing carbon dioxide. Because kelp can de-acidify seawater, it becomes easier for anything with a shell to grow (which is key to shellfish cultivation), while also providing a nutrient-dense, low-footprint food for a growing global population. Because of its high rate of growth and decay (and the fact that it contains no lignin and little cellulose), kelp can be used effectively in anaerobic digesters. And its main sugars can also be easily converted to ethanol. According to a report shared by the Scottish Association for Marine Science, it’s suggested that open-ocean kelp farms could serve as a source of renewable energy. 

But kelp isn’t just a potential answer to environmental conundrums, it’s also a tasty addition to some of our favourite local fare. Tofino Brewing does a magical Kelp Stout, sourcing dried kelp from Canadian Kelp (shoutout to Louis!), and the beer’s been a staple on their list since their early days. Oyster stouts served as a rough source of inspiration for their Kelp Stout, and the brewmaster conjured up the idea to swap out one salty sea being for another. The process of brewing this salty but smooth chocolate coffee stout involves creating large bundles of dried kelp in cheesecloth and adding them during the boil—like a giant kelp tea bag, if you will.

One of kelp’s superpowers is its versatility. From cooking fresh kelp down into a noodle alternative, to using salty dried strips for garnish, or adding flakes to inject some umami flavour into dishes, the ways that kelp makes its way into our cuisine are bountiful. It’s also showing up in other intriguing ways, such as in some alternatives to single-use packaging, being developed both here on the Island and abroad. Kelp has also long been used in the production of many household products. Soda ash, which comes from burning kelp, is commonly used in soap and glass production. Alginate, a kelp-derived carbohydrate, is a thickener in ice cream, jelly, salad dressing, toothpaste and a slew of other products. 

On the other side of the world, there have been explorations into how kelp can be used to create new materials. One example from Denmark is a combination of seaweed and recycled paper that creates a tough and durable material described as “a warm and tactile surface with the softness of cork and the lightness of paper, which can be used for products and furniture.” The colour of the material is determined by the species of seaweed, ranging from dark brown to light green. If we continue to look towards our abundant local forests, the possibilities seem endless. 

Beyond human benefits, kelp also provides a diverse home for many aquatic species. The only real threat to kelp flourishing is the mighty sea urchin, which decimate entire forests once they start methodically munching through the holdfasts. Luckily, the natural predator of urchins is sea otters, who tend to snack on the spiky creatures and keep them in check. But since sea urchins are a culinary delicacy, we could be looking at a triple threat in balancing our local waters—more kelp, less fish farm gunk and a market for urchins—perhaps a triple win?

Whether we’re making good use of this thriving plantamial in known ways, or we’re finding new and innovative uses for it, Vancouver Island is a hot bed for kelp beds. (Fun fact: kelp are not plants or animals but plantamials; they’re immobile and don’t eat like plants, but when it comes to minute structure and sex, they’re animals.) Local uses include wild harvesting and pickling the stipe, drying and curing kelp as a salty garnish or crunchy snack, and even in applying the gelatinous insides from the fronds of some genus like salve (think: the aloe of the ocean). Some coastal folk have even been known to swap out a traditional jack-o’-lantern in favour of a kelp version by finding the largest ball of a bull kelp they can, carving out some facial features and giving the fronds a little haircut. 

When we consider our lush and mild climate and the thriving local arts communities around the Island, it seems appropriate to be pioneering a way of celebrating one of our most abundant resources. Though not all see kelp for its resourceful possibilities; many artists use this majestic sea species as a muse or work with it as a medium, experimenting and manipulating the plant. 

Seaweed tote bag designed and printed by Speaking of the Weather in Tofino. Photo: Dre Turner

Today, my daily interactions with kelp no longer elicit fear. Kelp presents itself on my morning beach walks, and my dog gets great joy from using it as a toy. It’s a fun distraction while waiting between sets in the surf. It’s delicious as a snack or part of a meal. And as a mostly recovered seaweed-scaredy-cat, my favourite tote bag, which goes everywhere I go, ironically reads “Still Scared of Seaweed,” screen-printed here in Tofino. Although it’s not 100 per cent accurate, it’s a sweet reminder of how far I’ve come from the days of floating starfish-style in the middle of a lake, waiting to be rescued from the threat of seaweed lurking in the depths.

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