About five years ago, Catherine O’Hare started harvesting seaweed on the California coast as a hobby. Using just a pair of scissors and her hands, she collected bits of kelp that she’d take home, dry and use in broths and crumble on dishes as seasoning. Growing up by the ocean in Southern California, O’Hare was naturally drawn to the water, and after graduating from college, she worked on farms. Employed by a small food business at the time, she missed her days of being outdoors and having a more hands-on role in the food system. So when she was taken seaweed harvesting in Sonoma County for the first time she recalls that “it was a formative experience.”
O’Hare was so drawn to the activity, she got a fishing license and was soon regularly gathering seaweed on weekends. She became familiar with the different varieties, how to cook with them, along with their nutritional benefits. But in those early days, she had no inkling that her pastime of collecting salty, savory sea tangles would become Salt Point Seaweed, a business she’d start with two like-minded friends.
Those two friends are Tessa Emmer and Avery Resor. O’Hare studied biology at Oberlin College, where she met Emmer, and Emmer and Resor connected at a Masters of Development program at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. Emmer and Resor had traveled to East Africa, where they learned how aquafarmers in Zanzibar had created a sustainable alternative to the dying fishing industry by growing and selling seaweed. The abundant and regenerative resource not only produces a nutrient-rich food source without land or fresh water, but helps to fight the effects of climate change, too.
The three women, now all living in the East Bay, were convinced by the health and environmental benefits of seaweed. They wondered how they could bring sustainable aquaculture to California. Although native seaweed is abundant along the California coast, and despite the growing consumption of seaweed across the nation, there are only a handful of California harvesting operations. More than 90% of the seaweed we eat is imported from large commercial operations in Japan and Korea.
“We would meet up and talk about food, food systems, and seaweed was always a part of those conversations,” O’Hare said. In spring 2017, the women decided to pursue their passion project by founding Salt Point Seaweed.
Seaweed harvesting takes place from late April or early May into July. During that time, Salt Point Seaweed is found in Mendocino, where the trio gathers the aquatic algae, simply using scissors and their hands, like O’Hare did on her weekend outings.
The amount of seaweed they gather varies by outing, mostly depending on the state of the ecosystem on that particular day. They have a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which monitors where and how much they harvest, but because they’re such a small-scale operation, that doesn’t amount to much, especially in comparison to commercial seaweed operations.
An integral part of their harvesting technique is knowing how much to take and how much to leave behind. Seaweed, O’Hare explains, has a simple physiology that allows it to grow quickly, but leaving a portion of the organism behind is key to ensuring sustainable harvesting. The women prune the seaweed, leaving a margin to regenerate. They are also careful not to over-harvest an area.
“We’re taking a 1/10 or 1/7th of seaweed in a given area so that we’re leaving plenty of individuals in the population,” O’Hare said.
After harvest ends, Salt Point Seaweed spends the rest of the year more than 150 miles south of Mendocino. The business is based in Oakland, but they sublet from Cult Crackers at Berkeley Kitchens, using the commercial kitchen space in the evenings. Here, they process, bake and package their products.
The three types of seaweed that Salt Point Seaweed offers are kombu, wakame and nori. Kombu and wakame are both types of kelp, brown algae that are abundant and grow very quickly; the California species are different than the Asian varieties, although they have similar flavors (California wakame, O’Hare said, has a milder, sweeter flavor). Salt Point Seaweed’s kombu is sold dried in thick strips, meant to be added to broths and stocks to add deep umami flavor; its wakame is also sold dried, but this more delicate seaweed variety can be rehydrated to make salads or added into soups.
Nori is a type of pyropia, or red algae that grows on rocks, that’s most commonly used to make sheets of seaweed for sushi. The kind in California is the same species you’ll find in Korea and Japan. Salt Point toasts and grounds its nori, combining it with wakame flakes, which it sells in small glass jars as seasoning.
Nori and wakame also make up Salt Point Seaweed’s newest product, Surf Snack, a combination of the two seaweeds, mixed with seeds and maple syrup, and then baked into crunchy bite-sized nuggets. “A number of people [we’ve talked to] are not sure how to cook with seaweed. We decided to make something that’s a snack that’s easy to eat and has this amazing nutrition benefit too,” O’Hare said. “It’s an easier intro to seaweed, a friendlier first taste for people who don’t cook with seaweed.”
In late March, Salt Point Seaweed launched a Kickstarter to raise $25,000 to ramp up production of Surf Snack. The money raised would go to a new seaweed grinding mill and a better drying infrastructure. Salt Point Seaweed reached its goal after just one day, then extended the campaign with a stretch goal of $45,000. If they reach that goal by April 22, the extra $20,000 will be used for a new boat engine and to develop more sustainable packaging for Surf Snack. At time of publication, the campaign had raised more than $35,000.
O’Hare said the goal is to get Surf Snack into stores and to grow the business, but admits there’s a limit to the company’s growth as a wild harvesting operation. Which is why the trio are very interested in seaweed cultivation.
Although getting a permit to hand harvest seaweed in California is fairly easy; getting permitted for seaweed farming is another story.
“In California, we’re a state that protects and values our coast and environmental resources. Any development in or near the ocean takes super long and is expensive,” O’Hare said. The stringent regulations combined with the lack of precedent for seaweed farming in California means it’s an uphill battle convincing regulatory agencies that have no institutional knowledge on the topic.
Salt Point Seaweed recently wrapped up the first phase of a pilot program with Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tomales Bay, researching if seaweed could be farmed in conjunction with oyster farmers. Using Hog Island’s aquaculture lease, Salt Point successfully grew seaweed in the bay’s deeper waters, away from the oysters, on long ropes. The trio have shared the data from their research with Fish and Wildlife and other regulatory agencies. Their hope is their studies will show seaweed farming as an environmentally beneficial industry. The trio are looking into starting a second phase of the pilot.
“What we did was a preliminary look, so it was just starting point,” O’Hare said.
But even if they remain a wild harvesting business, Salt Point Seaweed, which is primarily a three-person operation, has room to grow. And if the initial success of their Kickstarter campaign is any indication, their future looks promising.
“There are supportive food businesses in the area, lots shouted out [about the Kickstarter campaign]. We weren’t expecting that, but it helped get the word out,” O’Hare said. “The Bay Area is a hard place, but it’s incredible for the food community. There are amazing companies that have become friends.”
Salt Point Seaweed products are available online and at the Kensington Farmers Market on first and third Sundays. Local stores like Oaktown Spice Shop, Third Culture Bakery’s showroom and CRO Café offer Surf Snack.