BLUE HILL — For some, it’s surprising to find out the seaweed wreathing Maine’s rocky ledges is packed with healthy minerals and nutrients. And once they’re cooked the right way, they can be quite scrumptious too.
Deer Isle resident Micah Woodcock has been harvesting seaweed for years and founded his own harvesting enterprise, the Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Co. in Deer Isle.
“The only experience that a lot of people in America have with seaweed is stepping on rotten seaweed on the beach,” Woodcock said at a cooking class held last month at the Halcyon Grange. “I want to change that.”
The class’s 20 or so participants emitted plenty of oohs and mmms as they sampled different varieties of seaweed, such as sugar kelp, Irish moss, dulse and kombu. Some were crunchy and crisp while others were gummy and chewy. All had an irresistible flavor, like biting into a healthy potato chip.
“Seaweed hyper-accumulates the trace minerals in ocean water and makes them available to us in dietary form,” Woodcock said. Among the dozens of minerals found in seaweed are manganese and iodine, which can be hard to find in a modern Western diet.
The richness of minerals found in seaweed is why many farmers use a species of it called rockweed as a fertilizer for plants or as fodder for animals. Woodcock said that 90 percent of the seaweed harvested in Maine is rockweed. The other 10 percent includes species such as kombu, wakame, nori, Irish moss and others. Woodcock knows numerous ways to use seaweed in pesto, miso soup, noodles, custard and many other dishes.
“I take dry seaweed and cut it into bite-sized pieces with scissors,” he said. “I cook it with rice or chowder or beans or stews or soups. It imparts a lot of trace minerals and a subtle added layer of flavor and it just tastes fuller.”
Seaweed has been eaten by humans since prehistoric times, and maritime cultures around the world have traditions of eating the sea vegetable. America is an anomaly in that regard, though seaweed used to be popular here, too. But the taste for it has dissipated over the past century or so.
“I think part of it has to do with people being less dependent on their immediate surroundings,” Woodcock said, more specifically about the abundance of food found in supermarkets. “We have so much food from anywhere we want. Even in rural America it’s less of a subsistence culture.”
But seaweed may be having a comeback due to the movement for sustainable food that’s grown across the country over the past 10 years.
“That’s helping rekindle interest in food in general,” Woodcock said. “People are more interested in what they’re eating and where it comes from.”
A northern Aroostook County native, Woodcock first developed a passion for seaweed seven years ago, when he apprenticed with a seaweed harvester named Larch Hanson, who’s been in the business for 40 years, in Steuben.
“Part of what struck me was here’s this amazing wild resource that can be sustainably tended, managed and stewarded and can provide an abundance of food year after year,” Woodcock said. “That’s a big part of why the light clicked on for me.”
Woodcock eventually struck out on his own to harvest seaweed from Penobscot Bay. From March to November, the 28-year-old throws on a wetsuit, hops into a dory and, during low tide, visits the ledges where the seaweed grows. He cuts them by hand, avoiding the plant’s holdfast, a rootlike structure that holds the plant to the ledge, and puts them in a basket or bag and brings them back to shore to dry out.
Depending on the tides, he sometimes gets back to shore before sunrise.
“It’s cold, wet and often dark work and you get knocked around a lot by the surf,” said Woodcock, who knows his ledges so well by now that he can often harvest the seaweed by touch. “I like the challenge and I like working closely with the elements.”
Woodcock said that, like many other fisheries, seaweed harvesting is a way of life. “Sometimes it feels like the best job in the world and sometimes it feels like the hardest,” he said.
There are only five other full-time sea vegetable harvesting companies in Maine. Though the fishery is regulated by Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, “there isn’t a formal management plan for sea vegetables at this time,” Woodcock said. “The sustainability of the harvest depends on the informal agreements among harvesters to respect each other’s territory.”
Maintaining the sustainability of the seaweed harvest is a delicate balance. Woodcock might not revisit a ledge for years, if that’s how long it takes the species on it to regrow. He also teaches classes about seaweed to local school groups such as the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.
“I take satisfaction in being a good steward of a common resource,” he said.
Woodcock’s seaweeds are sold at the Blue Hill Co-op and online at http://www.atlanticholdfast.com/.