Sea-Combers

During low tide on a March afternoon, Larry Knowles, hat slouched on his head like a tea cozy, stands atop driftwood and gestures towards the pristine Mendocino coastline. Below him swirl the brown, whip-like tubes of last year’s bull kelp load. Thousands of flies buzz frantically, feasting on the slowly decomposing piles of seaweed. “2008 was the richest upwelling in twenty years,” Knowles says.

Knowles would know. Over the past fifteen years he has visited this particular cove, located directly behind the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, hundreds of times to harvest wild seaweed. Knowles’ small company, Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, is one of a handful of ecologically minded businesses in Northern California that specialize in wild-crafting sea vegetables—harvesting seaweed from its natural habitat—for human consumption. Started in 1981 by his ex-girlfriend Kate Marianchild, Rising Tide has been sustainably harvesting, drying, and selling highly nutritious seaweed, including nori, wakame, kombu, sea palm, and Fucus, for 28 years.

The Mendocino coast’s rough, cold waters, and the high nutrient content of its intertidal zones, make it uniquely conditioned for sea vegetable growth. Knowles, perching on a rock, explains that the ocean’s turbulence increases photosynthesis and cohabitation among different species, and says that sea palms have evolved to grow in the harsh waves. As Knowles talks about the importance of the lunar cycle and tides, praising the violence of the ocean and the chill of its relatively unpolluted waters, he pinches a small piece of early-season Fucus off a rock and offers it to me. It is succulent, crunchy and has a pleasantly salty, nutty taste.

For thousands of years, humans have benefited from sea vegetables’ abundance. Edible ocean-growing
algae are full of essential vitamins and minerals—including calcium, iron, iodine and phosphorus—and offer high levels of protein and unsaturated fatty acids. Studies show that kombu and wakame contain sodium alginate (algin), which strips radioactive particles and heavy metals from the body.

Knowles’ company strives to make seaweed more accessible for mainstream eaters by offering blended packages of sea vegetables and prepared snacks. Dried wakame, sea palm and kombu can be added to stews, or rehydrated and tossed into salads. Nori, the same seaweed used to wrap sushi, has a nutty and salty flavor when crisped up in the oven and can be crumpled over rice and stir-fries. Rising Tide also sells small packages of a dried sea palm and almond mixture, and maple wakame and sesame seed bars. All of their products have the distinct taste of the ocean.

Knowles and his two employees are able to trim fronds from most of the sea vegetables on foot. Wearing wetsuits, they wade in—sometimes up to their chests—or jump along the jagged rocks during low tide. To reach spots farther offshore, they paddle around in kayaks. The job is not without its perils. Large, unexpected waves occasionally knock the harvesters from their rocks, and the sharp knives they use to cut the algae can slip in the wet conditions. So far Knowles is the only member of his company who has been hurt, yet he remains endlessly enthusiastic about the job that takes him to the water at dawn all summer long.

Yet Knowles worries that his business may never reach its thirtieth anniversary. Although the sea vegetable
supply remains robust, state law may deny sea vegetable wild-crafters access to the coast as soon as 2010.
The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), adopted by the California legislature in 1999, directs the state to reevaluate its existing protections and to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) up and down the coast. These protected areas are “no-take zones,” meaning that the removal of certain marine life—or all marine life in highly protected areas—will be illegal. If the act is enforced as planned, around eighteen percent of the coast will be off-limits to seaweed wild-crafters, despite the fact that hand-harvesting does no harm to the seaweed or the surrounding ecosystem.

Motivated by a desire to assure the quality of their product and by a love for the ocean ecosystem with which they are so closely attached, sea vegetable wild-crafters strive to maintain a harmonious relationship with the marine life around them. They began using words like “sustainable” and “ecosystem” in the 1980s, before such terms entered common discourse. Now, after decades of dedicated ocean stewardship and long fights to keep the Mendocino area free of oil interests and polluting industries, Knowles and his fellow sea vegetable aficionados have a new, unlikely adversary: other environmentalists.

The Marine Life Protection Act is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation. Only ten pages long, it seeks to evaluate, expand and unify the hodge-podge of existing Marine Protected Areas along the California coastline and provide greater protection to native marine species. It also gives the California Department of Fish & Game authority over the act’s implementation and enforcement, and specifically calls for regional decision-making processes and increased conservation based on the best available science.Yet despite the simplicity of the legislation, beneath the surface lie controversies, bureaucratic struggles, and a multitude of special interests. (For Terrain’s previous coverage of the controversy surrounding California’s Marine Protected Areas, see “Marine Reserves Generate Plans, Passions… and Perhaps Fish,” Summer 2008.)

After several attempts to implement the Marine Life Protection Act failed due to lack of funding and protests from stakeholders—commercial and recreational fishermen, sea vegetable wild-crafters, abalone divers, and oyster harvesters among them—in 2004, private, nonprofit interests led primarily by the Packard Foundation and the Resource Legacy Foundation Fund allocated around $18 million to support the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, the best-funded and most decisive attempt to create a MPA system. The California coast was divided into five sub-regions: South Coast, Central Coast, North Central Coast, North Coast, and the San Francisco Bay.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the California Resources Agency Secretary, Mike Chrisman, to select experts in policy, environmental law, and resource management to oversee the process and advise the Department of Fish & Game. These “Blue Ribbon Task Forces” are made up of volunteer appointees, and are intended to help promote compromise and transparency while expediting the act’s implementation.

The North Central Coast area, representing the area from Point Arena to Pigeon Point and the southern boundary of the sea vegetable wild-crafters’ harvesting zone, was the second region to embark on its research. Over the last year, stakeholder representatives and participating preservationists attended hundreds of hours of meetings, discussions, presentations, and workshops. They drew new Marine Protected Areas, redrew existing ones, and argued over the protective level of each.

The resulting plan, dubbed the Integrated Preferred Alternative (IPA), is a patchwork of 31 Marine Protected Areas of varying levels of protection. Environmental advocacy groups and the Blue Ribbon Task Force, mostly pleased with the outcome, are pressuring Fish & Game to accept the plan with no further changes or compromises.

Some environmental groups have lauded this effort as inclusive and effective. Kaitilin Gaffney, Central Coast program manager for the Ocean Conservancy, has been following the process for five years and believes it is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in California. She feels that the process has been more than fair: “I would say the MLPA is clearly the most participatory and inclusive process that I’ve ever participated in.”

Yet some local stakeholders who use the ocean as a subsistence food source and were not selected for a decision- making position feel steamrolled. Jim Martin, the West Coast Regional Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, who has been involved with various MLPA plans for ten years, feels that the process wasn’t as inclusive as it’s been made out to be: “That is complete BS. It’s open in the sense that there are a lot of meetings to go to and a lot of things to read and speakers to listen to. But when it comes to public comment, you get one minute.”

Both sides of the dispute care deeply about conserving Northern California’s ocean ecosystems, but they disagree about the best way to achieve that goal. For Gaffney, the act offers an opportunity for the complete preservation of some areas, promoting research and hopefully spurring the resurgence of some key marine species. Yet local stakeholders like Martin, Knowles, and John Lewallen—one of the first seaweed wild-crafting enthusiasts on the West Coast, who started his Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company in 1980—feel that the act fails to address one of the most pressing threats to the marine life—water pollution—and disregards the importance of the ocean to the local food supply. “Our job is to tell the truth to the environmental movement, because I think they have lost sight that humans are part of the ecosystem,” says Lewallen. “We should strive for stewardship and sustainable harvesting.”

Knowles feels similarly: “There are people who are very environmentally aware and are concerned about preservation. They think about saving ecosystems and polar bears and sensitive animal species, but they don’t think well about human communities. And it looks to me like that process is geared more towards what I would consider an owning-class preservationist policy rather than thinking well about natural ecosystems and human ecosystems and local economies.”

For the seaweed wild-crafters, the prospect of being barred from protected areas is particularly frustrating because their hand-harvesting business does no harm. Although the depletion of fish, abalone,
crab, and oyster populations is an increasing problem,and perhaps well-placed no-take zones could boost their numbers, trimming a nori frond neither kills the plant nor decreases its future growth. Highly protected no-take zones don’t make such subtle distinctions.

In defense of the no-take zones, Gaffney asserts that the point of a Marine Protected Area is to provide complete protection for the ecosystem, and that since seaweed is part of the ecosystem, it should remain untouched. “I am not saying that seaweed harvest harms the California ocean ecosystem,” Gaffney explains.“What I’m saying is the main idea of the reserves is to protect the ocean ecosystem in all its pieces. Most of the coast is still about sustainable use, but in those few areas, it should be fully protected as part of that ecosystem.”

The sea vegetablers say this type of all-or-nothing approach may put all the wild-crafters in the Mendocino area out of business. The most accessible spots along the coast, and therefore the best for seaweed harvesting, are also the places where the MLPA focuses its protection. Highly protective MPAs will also deny long-cherished fishing spots to recreational hook and line fishermen who primarily
fish to feed their families and are already regulated by Fish & Game.

For Mendocino natives, the most pressing concern is local control: Many feel deep resentment over the privately funded process, believing corporate money is pushing the process through in an aggressive and single-minded manner. “We are Californians,” says Lewallen. “We want a clean ecosystem and a sustainable source of food and instead it’s moving towards industrialization and gentrification of the coast… The MLPA has us fighting each other. It couldn’t be set up by the people. It couldn’t be set up by the state. It’s corporate!”

The seaweed harvesters are particularly concerned that the MPA system may give the illusion of complete ocean conservation, but through its selective protection of marine life will undermine local calls for the stewardship of the entire Mendocino Coast. The area has remained pristine, they say, because local stakeholders have invested in the ocean and have fought for decades to keep industry and oil interests out. They want to know who will carry on the battle if the small, local businesses close down.

Gaffney is quick to point out that the MLPA is just one important part of ocean conservation and that other legislation will be needed to protect water quality and limit the industrialization of the coastline. But that answer is not good enough for the sea vegetable wild-crafters who envision a future in which they will be denied access to seaweed, but Pacific Gas & Electric will be allowed—even encouraged—to harvest wave energy in areas adjacent to the MPAs. PG&E recently invested millions of dollars in wave energy research off the coast of Fort Bragg—the company was just approved for $4.8 million in funding by the California Public Utilities Commission and $1.2 million from the Department of Energy for their 40 megawatt WaveConnect project. Knowles fears that a wave energy program of this size will cause irreparable damage to the intertidal zone.

“This is the irony of the situation,” Knowles explains. “They’re talking about getting these no-take zones where it is a controlled situation, but of course you get these wave energy [plants] anywhere from five miles long with 100 wave machines… That is absolutely going to impact the near shore ecosystem.”

The final controversy surrounding the MLPA involves enforcement and funding. After the foundation’s money runs out, it remains unclear how Fish & Game will pay to enforce the levels of protection in each Marine Protected Area. Environmentalists seem confident that there is enough public and private interest in the act to assure future funding. But if enforcement is lax the opportunity for poaching will increase, and then everyone will lose.

Despite concern over new rules that may limit their collecting next year, the sea vegetable wild-crafters began harvesting in May and will continue through August. Lewallen says that the marine ecosystems where he harvests are in excellent condition, despite the absence of strict no-take zones: “The seaweed is in great shape. Last year was better than ever. And the water is clean.”

For Knowles, the key is to balance the human need for sustenance with responsible care for the ocean’s health. “We watch the growth patterns and harvesting patterns to reduce our impact,” he explains. “We have to think past sustainable, and start thinking about systems, as opposed to one species. That’s our philosophy.”


4 thoughts on “Sea-Combers

  1. It is interesting that the article closes with a quotation from Mr. Knowles indicating that we have to “start thinking about systems, as opposed to one species.” It would be appropriate if he took this advice to heart. While harvesting sea palm is important both economically and culturally on the Mendocino coast, is is important to remember that this is a sensitive plant — and it is, indeed, a vital part of the ocean ecosystem, providing food and habitat for a variety of creatures. Opponents to the MLPA in general, or to specifically proposed Marine Protected Areas often have narrow interests in mind. “It would be great, if you just allowed this one thing” – and that one thing is usually the one person’s favorite fishing spot or the one person’s personal interest. Howevr the ocean is full of “favorite fishing spots”, and if each was excluded from protection, there would be no protection at all.

    Sea palm is unique to the west coast, but its harvest has been banned in Oregon and Washington, so all collection efforts are concentrated in California, where there are currently ZERO restrictions on sea palm harvesting. Selling at $40 per pound with no regulations, it’s easy to imagine how this resource can be quickly decimated as demand increases further.

    To characterize the MLPA Initiative and process as representing private interests is misleading at best. The process has been an open and inclusive one, with extensive public input and participation. Moreover, the Integrated Preferred Alternative (IPA) was not the favored proposal of the “Environmental advocacy groups” as your sources may have led you to believe. Rather it was a compromise of compromises, developed through a year and a half of discussions, collaborations, public workshops, and meetings. Stakeholder representatives like me were the ones that sat around the table with microphones and namecards, but the other people in the room, and people outside of the meetings had just as much “say” in the process and in the development of the proposals. The public and its interests were considered every step of the way.

    The MPA process takes the importance of the sea palm into account and allows for commercial and subsistence harvest while setting some areas aside to ensure the resource remains viable into the future. MPAs are good for business, good for California, good for us, and good for the planet.

  2. There is a simple fundemental question Mr. Knowles, Mr. Martin, and this article fail to recognize: Do we believe that there are areas that should be protected in their entirity as healthy functioning ecosystems? Personally, I believe there should be such places. Some might say the ocean doesn’t need protection. Or just allow my one, miniscule, doesn’t-bother-anyone use. If seaweed harvesting is so benign, why is it banned by some states? I believe we should set aside small areas as completely protected.

    The article also mentions that more needs to be done about water quality. I totally agree. I was VERY involved in creating the (south) Central Coast network of marine protected areas (Pigeon Point to Pt. Conception). We heard the same mantra: “Work on water quality, not on protected areas.” I would invite those folks to the Regional Water Quality Control Board meetings; I’m there every month and I never see any of the nay-sayers there.

    The Marine Life Protection Act was country-leading legislation that encourages us to think about the future… beyond our self interests. Yes, some people may have to find new favorite spots. But our kids and grand kids will have places to marvel at if we set aside some special places NOW.

    Steve Shimek
    Monterey Coastkeeper
    The Otter Project

  3. Who defines what is sustainable? Is a seaweed fishery sustainable just because the seaweed harvesters say it is? How do they know their commercial activities do no harm to the seaweeds or the surrounding ecosystem? Where is their evidence? These are the claims that critical thinkers need to ask and seek answers to before leaping to conclusions about whether or not having a functional network of no-take marine protected areas is in the best, long-term interests of marine life and the diversity of human stakeholders who care about and use the ocean in many different ways (not just for commercial gain).

    Commercial take of seaweed is growing rapidly, regulations are virtually non-existent, and some species are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation because of their ecology. We have hundreds of examples of how unregulated (or poorly regulated) fisheries and other commercial industries fare. You need only look to the declining availability of local fish in your local market, the limited (if any) fishing seasons for many local species and the current financial crisis to see how well self-regulation works. “Just trust us” just doesn’t sound like such a good idea anymore.

    The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process, in contrast to the “just trust us” model, has been built on a foundation of the best available science. The networks of sites are proposed by a dedicated, hardworking and thoughtful group of stakeholders (including commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, conservationists, tribal representatives, educators, etc.) in a very public process with many opportunities for community input. Each proposed network is evaluated by a team of leading marine scientists to assess how well they conform to scientific guidelines (based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence). Each team of stakeholders then has the opportunity to revise their proposal several times in light of a wealth of scientific, socio-economic and public input to try and find an appropriate balance among these factors while meeting the minimum, scientifically based criteria for effectiveness.

    Contrary to the assertions of many seaweed harvesters, access to the entire coast will not be denied to them and others interested in reaping commercial gain from the ocean; instead a few areas of the coast will be set aside as marine reserves, spaced so that they work together as a network to conserve intact ecosystems and allow organisms to disperse among them. These protected areas not only serve as “natural capital” protecting the plants, animals and seaweeds within their borders, but they can also replenish areas outside their boundaries where people will engage in commercial and recreational fishing and gathering. Additionally, they help compensate for some of the inadequacies of fisheries management in the face of inevitable uncertainties in stock assessments, unpredictable changes in ocean conditions and political pressures. Evidence for these outcomes can be found in the rich scientific literature on marine conservation.

    Karina J. Nielsen, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Biology, Sonoma State University
    Member of the Science Advisory Teams for the North Central Coast MLPA &
    CA Ocean Protection Council

  4. In regard to Mr. Chin’s comments, sea palm fronds may not be taken recreationally – only with a commercial permit. I would say that is a tight regulation. Certainly not “ZERO regulations.”

    In regard to Dr. Nielsen’s comments – the sustainability of the sea palm harvest at Sea Lion Cove is proven by the fact the algae is still there after 30 years of harvest. And this statement – “We have hundreds of examples of how unregulated (or poorly regulated) fisheries and other commercial industries fare.” Oh really? Can you give me an example of any unregulated fisheries in California? What has shocked me during the MLPA process is how many scientists with an academic background in marine ecology have almost no knowledge of fishing regulations, fishery management the laws that govern them.
    “The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process, in contrast to the “just trust us” model, has been built on a foundation of the best available science.” Please read the MLPA statute – it does not require the “best available science” (that is a phrase found in the Magnuson-Stevens Act). It only requires the “most readily available science.” As in: Look! I found some science! It’s a much lower legal standard than that which manages our fisheries. It’s not even science, it’s hypothesis based in political advocacy.

    Overall, the comments here show the bias of the MLPA process against fishing as the sole human impact on marine life. The attack on sustainable fisheries means that fishermen will not support the vast expansion of MPAs in California and the MLPA is doomed to failure. (see Tundi Agardy’s paper on this). Our fisheries are sustainable, but the MLPA isn’t.

    Jim Martin

    P.S. You picked the wrong type of hippies to mess with!