Growth: Solutions We Love
- Holding Fast to Kelp
Holding Fast to Kelp
This humble seaweed nourishes and teaches us to move with life’s currents.
The world’s waters form a single ocean, and throughout it, communities of Kelp choreograph their collective movement with unrelenting currents. Theirs is a dance of acceptance.
Kelp is an ecosystem engineer, providing crucial habitat for marine mammals, birds, and fish. Kelp acts as a refuge at the ocean’s surface—offering food, shelter, and protection for seals and otters—and a nursery on the seafloor—providing spawning grounds, shade, and cooler water for baby fish. Kelp’s holdfast, or rootlike structure, can host more than 90 animal species. Zooplankton, for example—full of the carotenoids that make salmon flesh pink—appear at higher rates in Kelp forests than in the open ocean.
Kelp is nutrient-dense, generating more than 50 minerals and 100 different trace elements. This sea vegetable is 10 to 20 times higher in calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc than any land-based vegetable. For those of us who live above the surface, Kelp can support the thyroid, regulate metabolism, and restore energy levels. While Western culture has long overlooked and undervalued this nourishing, versatile, and once-abundant food, countless cultures and generations have incorporated seaweeds into their diets.
Thinking about Kelp transports naturopath Dr. Gary L. Ferguson II, Unangax̂ (Aleut), back to his childhood in Sand Point, Alaska. On these ancestral beaches, he learned to forage for delicacies from Unangax̂ Elders and his mother, Kristin Ferguson: “She would always say, ‘When the tide is low, the table is set.’”
On one trip, Elder Nora Newman taught him how to remove the backbone from Ribbon Kelp and chop up the blades for a salad to accompany the rich harvest of Pidarki (mollusks) they pried off rocks. “We would eat both of them right on the beach, raw and fresh,” Ferguson recalls.
Today, Ferguson is the one doing the teaching. “Many of my Elders have moved on to that [spirit] realm, and it is now up to me as an ‘Elder in training’ to step up to the plate to make sure these traditions are not only written down but lived in experience,” says Ferguson, who also works at Washington State University’s Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health. He feels strongly that youth “need to be connected to the land, the sea, and the amazing bounty we still have in the Aleutians.”
In the Salish Sea, more than 20 species of Kelp create enormous underwater forests and swaths of surface canopy. Bullwhip Kelp is one of the fastest-growing plants in the sea and grows as much as 10 inches a day, reaching up to 115 feet.
Writer Owen L. Oliver, Quinault/Isleta Pueblo, envisions his Ancestors filling canoes with Bullwhip Kelp: “The blades for eating, the bulbs for medicinal salves, and the stipes to be dried for twine.” His Ancestors long stewarded these underwater ecosystems for themselves and their nonhuman kin. “They understood that healthy Kelp forests equaled healthy seas,” Oliver says. “Kelp is a relational hot spot for critters to gather and spawn.”
Oliver describes how each spring, herring’s sticky eggs—a traditional delicacy along the Northwest coast—encase blades of Kelp: “Millions of salty, protein-rich eggs can be harvested and eaten directly off the makeshift plate of the Kelp blades.” But during our lifetime, waters are warming and acidifying; Kelp forests—and herring—are vanishing. “A cultural necessity before contact is now a cultural spectacle,” Oliver says.
Around the global ocean, Kelp shares with us its ability to conjure life, manifest vitality, and bolster ocean health. We have much to learn from that ability and commitment to hold fast to life eternal—both below the water’s surface and above.
Green Sea Salt Recipe
Naturally salty seaweed can be used as a seasoning to boost the flavor and nutrient profile of your meals. Mineral-rich nettles and milk thistle seeds in this recipe also support liver health.
1/4 cup powdered Kelp
1/4 cup dried nettle leaves
1/4 cup milk thistle seeds
3 tablespoons sea salt
In a small bowl, combine Kelp, nettles, and milk thistle seeds with sea salt.
Store in an airtight glass jar and sprinkle small amounts on savory dishes, beans, and salads.
This article was updated at 12:17 p.m. PT on Sept. 4, 2023, to clarify that Dr. Gary L. Ferguson II is a naturopath not a nutritionist. Also, Owen L. Oliver’s ancestors were not in Alaska. Read our corrections policy here.