The Seaweed Hunters

Northern California’s coast is at the heart of a billion-dollar seaweed industry. Poachers and foragers have plundered the landscape, leaving Indigenous harvesters to contend with a ravaged ecosystem.

It was barely daybreak when the crew of seaweed harvesters set out from the tiny town of Jenner, California, toward the Sonoma Coast, two miles away. The full moon from the night before was fading as they scrambled on foot down a dusty path, past wildflowers and poison oak, and over large boulders the size of miniature mountains. On the shore beneath a towering hillside, the foragers gathered around a log of driftwood to shed hoodies for wetsuits, hiking boots for galoshes, and backpacks for waterproof sacks.

Soon, these packs would be filled with a fresh, sinewy bounty, handpicked from the sea: kombu, a variation of seaweed that at this time of year was plentiful in these jagged coves. It was the end of June, and the tide was at its lowest all year. The crew knew they’d have to act fast before the day’s waves started to roll in. Heidi Herrmann was the catalyst for the pre-dawn gathering. Since 2008, the career horticulturist has scoured the Sonoma Coast in search of the best edible algae, harvesting them each June and July, a season in which she’ll call on friends and fellow nature lovers to assist in foraging, offering volunteers small stipends, baked goods, and the sharing of her own knowledge about the sea. The wavy sun-dried strips of kombu are a personal favorite of Herrmann’s. She dries, packages, and sells these edibles as part of Strong Arm Farm, her organically certified commercial project based in Santa Rosa, California. Kombu’s stock-thickening agency is popular for soup-making—misos, chilis, curries, basic chicken noodle broth. On her outings Herrmann also harvests nori, a staple of sushi; wakame, a chosen variety for Japanese salads; and bladderwrack, a medicinal sea plant.

Jenny Sanchez at a low-tide harvest in a small, pebbled cove just north of the mouth of the Russian River.
Bags of seaweed harvested for Strong Arm Farm.
A sea star and a large abalone, side by side at low tide.

“We’re out here asking what’s possible,” says Herrmann, tiny waves sloshing at her rubber boots. Her blond bob is covered with a red knit beanie that resembles a strawberry. Everything about Herrmann appears to revolve around her genuine affection for food. “Seaweed is becoming normalized in our cuisine and pillaging is possible,” she warns as she wades among strands of the greenest seagrass and bulbous bull kelp, a set of household kitchen shears in her hand.

(Kelp is often classified as seaweed; both are marine algae. But not all seaweed is considered kelp. In fact only one species, kombu, which Herrmann harvests and sells is considered of the 30 or so different kelp genera. The main difference is how the two grow. Kelp grows much deeper in the water, in forests. Seaweed generates in more shallow water, closer to the sun, producing more high-nutrient, edible varieties.)

Prior to the morning’s forage, Herrmann instructed her team to inspect a bed of exposed, craggy rocks for areas where the kombu had been cut ten days earlier, the last time she had gathered in this very spot. Two volunteers follow Herrmann’s lead, clipping carefully to leave enough of the long ribbon of algae intact for the intertidal seaweed to grow back—in this case, cutting about an inch from where the kombu’s wide, flat blades splintered from the plant’s base, which is attached to a slick stone in the sea. As the sun burns off what remains of the morning fog, Herrmann points out some leaves that have regenerated up to four inches since she saw them last, a healthy regrowth based on her years of self-taught foraging.


“I make sure to ask myself, ‘when have I made too much of an impact?,’” she says, snipping gently at fresh kombu, placing the silky strips in her bag. Nearby, a volunteer in a wetsuit works with similar precision, standing thigh-high in the slow-rising tide. “That’s how I know when to stop and start, and then stop again.”

Abalone shells.
The coast near Westport, California.

Over the past year, over-foraging of the California coast has accelerated concern for the area’s vast and abundant natural resources, which are held in a delicate balance. In December 2017, the state Fish and Game Commission voted to close the 2018 fishing season for red abalone, in part, due to over-foraging. The closure was seen by locals as unprecedented.

State biologists said what challenged the fishing grounds most was a chain reaction of severe environmental issues. Warming ocean temperatures led to the disappearance of the sea star, said officials, which preys on purple sea urchins. Without sea stars around to keep urchin populations in check, the urchins devoured what remained of kelp forests, forests that had already stopped growing due to the changing climate of the sea. From that came the starvation of the red abalone, which depends on kelp to stay alive.

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Abalone poachers also exacerbated the problem. Only aquacultured or farmed abalone can be sold commercially, making it an expensive delicacy for those who crave the unique shellfish. But for years, headlines from the northern coast told stories of a black market of aggressive sea-hunters seeking to supply the legally protected shellfish to the highest bidders, most often Bay Area chefs. In some cases, the red abalone went to supply Asia’s extreme demand. (Unlike Herrmann, these were foragers who broke the rules, caring little about the impact they were having on the sea. ) While the recreational ban did not spur a direct economic impact the way a commercial cutoff may have, for the affected counties—Marin, Mendocino, and Sonoma—the repercussions were more cross-culturally felt.

A footpath to the coast, near where Shawn Padi gathers seaweed.

For generations, coastal Indigenous gatherers have harvested abalone, a sea snail, pulling at its shell from coastal rocks at low tide. Gastronomically, the meaty mollusk is right between a scallop and a squid, eaten raw or cooked like a clam, although most prefer to enjoy it grilled. The creamy pink abalone shell has also been used to complete traditional regalia and to make jewelry to trade with neighboring tribes.

For Native American gatherers, resentment grew against non-Indigenous abalone poachers after the suspension went into effect. Any sovereign tribal nation today has the prerogative to determine its own hunting and fishing rights on its tribal trust lands, but forced relocation and uneven treaty agreements mean that few Native harvesters and hunters actually live on their traditional, ancestral hunting grounds.

California is emblematic of these colonizing outcomes. In 1851, when the state’s tribes exchanged land with the federal government, 18 treaties were signed and sent to the US Congress—like any foreign nation, they required federal approval—but the treaties were never ratified and any fishing rights that may have protected a tribe’s right to hunt and fish in the ways of its ancestors were lost. What this has meant for California’s tribal nations is a sentiment shared among a majority of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States: a contempt for state governments that have subjected Native Americans to local hunting and fishing regulations, and an anger at those who over-forage, pillage, or otherwise willfully disrupt the balance of an ecosystem.

Shawn Padi harvests porphyra, also known as nori.
Porphyra along the Northern California coast outside of Fort Bragg.

Eddie Knight, a tribal citizen of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, a tribal community situated about 50 miles inland from the Mendocino Coast, is understandably critical of government’s reach when it comes to interfering with Indigenous lifeways. But he says he was relieved when regulators finally stepped in to save what was left of the abalone. “They were just wiping them out,” Knight says, referring to the most extreme poachers who were arrested and faced extravagant fines and jail time: in 2017, more than 200 people were prosecuted for the illegal gathering or trade of abalone.

Knight’s boyhood during the 1950s was spent freediving in his Levis in search of abalone. It wasn’t until his aunt discovered rolls of neoprene for sale in the Sears, Roebuck, & Co. catalog, he explains, that he finally realized the comfort of a wetsuit. After purchasing the material and, using sewing skills she’d gleaned from a forced education at the Sherman Institute, an Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, near San Diego, Knight’s aunt took measurements, cut out patterns, and pieced together the garments for him and his uncles to wear. The men, Knight says, taught him everything he knew about his Indigenous ties to the land and sea.

On the day of Herrmann’s harvest, Knight pulled his Fleetwood RV to the shore of his youth, a cliffside campsite near Fort Bragg, situated about 100 miles north of where the kombu crew had congregated along California’s Highway 1. Today, the former family campsite is in a state park, Abalone Point, a namesake clinging to a coastal culture steadily being disrupted. High winds whipped across golden grassland as Knight sat alone in a rickety chair overlooking the sea and the sunset through a metal chain-link fence. “We all used to get together as a whole group, here,” he said. “We don’t do that anymore, and I don’t know why.” Of course, deep down, Knight knew the reason: It was a truth buried beneath so many other truths that had accumulated and calloused over the course of his many years.

“No one used to bother us. We take what we need and know when we’ve had enough. Why do you think we’re still here?”

—Eddie Knight, a tribal citizen of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians

Today, nearly two centuries after European settlers pushed into California’s Indian Country, the federal government recognizes just 109 tribal nations in the state. Tribal communities here make up roughly 100 reservations or rancherias, a mere fraction of the ancestral territories they once called home.

Eddie Knight, in many ways, is characteristic of northern California’s Indigenous population: historically displaced from the coast and its million-dollar views, he lives inland where he retired after several years of working for his tribal government. (In 2009, he pleaded guilty to embezzling tribal funds, along with several other employees. After he repaid the tribe, he slipped into seclusion.)

At 69, Knight looks and sounds like a man mooring strains of bitterness and regret—bitter about the modern impact that colonization continues to have on the Indigenous experience, and remorseful, perhaps even ashamed, for his misguided influence by it. But ask him about lessons learned, and the gray-haired grandfather of a dozen or so grandchildren is quick to parse out a successive narrative of removal, injustice, and appropriation: the flooding of his ancestral homeland to make way for the Coyote Dam; federal termination policies of the 1940s through the 1960s that stripped him of his tribal citizenship with the intent of assimilating Native Americans like him, and the encroachment of cultural lands and lifeways including the government-regulated state parks, that restricted abalone fishing and now, may increase the licensing of seaweed harvesting.

Where the Russian River meets the coast.
An A-frame dip net at Eddie Knight’s summer fish camp.
Sun-dried nori in the bed of Shawn Padi’s Dodge pickup.
Where the Russian River meets the coast.
An A-frame dip net at Eddie Knight’s summer fish camp.
Sun-dried nori in the bed of Shawn Padi’s Dodge pickup.

Edible seaweed is a trendy commodity right now in the United States, especially in California. The interest in nutrient-packed superfoods low in caloric intake and high in health benefits is on the radar of many, including state regulators. According to current industry projections, manufacturing of the mineral-rich greens is expected to surge globally in response to demand in untapped markets like the United States—market projections see the global commercial seaweed industry reaching $22 billion within the next decade. Anticipated growth means northern California harvesters and growers are poised to benefit from what some are calling the new kale.

As consumers everywhere become more familiar with seaweed’s culinary range it means they are also growing more gastronomically adventurous. Edible algae has, for generations, nourished Indigenous families despite a tidal wave of historic erasure. But for Native Americans in northern California, seaweed’s sudden vogue isn’t as much surprising as it is cause for renewed vexation. “We don’t need licenses to pick our seaweed. Our traditions are not for sale,” says a frustrated Knight. Harvesting seaweed legally doesn’t require a recreational license, but limits gathering to 10 pounds of wet seaweed a day—but many people harvest anyway, in contempt of state regulations. It wasn't always that way, Knight explains. Gradually, he says, the rules governing the sea of his ancestors has made gathering more prohibitive.

“No one used to bother us,” Knight says. “We take what we need and know when we’ve had enough. Why do you think we’re still here?”

The Sanel Valley, where the original Sho-Ka-Wah people lived and where their descendants are now organized under the Hopland Band of the Pomo Indians.

The Shed, one of many food destinations in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, is more than a restaurant, more than a market; it’s a center of enlightenment for the food-obsessive. The massive kitchen is drenched in midday light that pours in from its towering wall of windows and open roll-up garage doors. Inside, locals mingle with visitors sipping single-origin coffees while others browse the carefully-edited shelves stocked with high-end housewares and regional fare: June Taylor’s line of syrups with letterpress labels, Oaktown Spice Shop’s Homemade Tonic Water kit, and, displayed in a wooden wine crate, small packets of Herrmann’s Strong Arm Farm dried seaweed.

The sturdy, see-through plastic bags are distinguished by their color-coded title cards—lavender for Bladderwrack (Fucus), baby blue for Nori (Porphyra/Pyropia). The Kombu (Laminaria setchelii) is designated a hue of pastel green. At the top of the label sits a prominently placed Strong Arm Farm logo, and below, a few friendly lines explaining seaweed’s health benefits and cooking recommendations for each variety. “Traditional use in seaweed salads, high in calcium,” reads the italicized text on the bag of Wakame (Alaria), labeled in soft yellow.

Herrmann has built a clientele that includes many regional restaurants and grocers throughout the Bay Area, and she has customers as far south as Los Angeles. Though she specializes in a triple-rinsed and dried supply, more chefs have begun using fresh seaweed in their menus: At San Francisco’s Michelin-star restaurant, The Progress, the raw nori paired with its Hog Island sweetwater oysters comes sourced from a neighboring harvester to Herrmann, the Rising Tide Sea Vegetables company based in Mendocino County. The restaurant has also used Strong Arm Farm’s line of products alongside purchased Japanese juices used to create the kind of “seaweed bath” that a server recently described as complementary to its grilled Monterey Bay abalone.

Nori (Porphyra).
Kombu (Laminaria setchelii).
Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus).
Nori (Porphyra).
Kombu (Laminaria setchelii).
Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus).

Enthusiasm over California’s locally sourced seaweeds has also inspired a new twist on cocktail hour. Back in 2016, a Sonoma winemaker announced plans to create an algae-based line of liqueurs, sparkling aperitifs and brined vermouths. Branded as Seapalm, its anticipated release hasn’t yet happened. But the interest in drinking seaweed is there: as early as 2013, high-end mixologists began experimenting with kelp-infused concoctions. New York’s Louro in the West Village made headlines when it invited its guests to “drink like a fish,” and many did. One drink, a variation of an Old-Fashioned, was prepared with Madeira and kelp-infused Famous Grouse.

“We are definitely seeing an increased interest in seaweed and kelp,” says Rebecca Flores Miller, a state environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For this reason, the department has initiated a three-phase review of its existing regulations with a direct focus on the commercialization of the native and farm-based sea plant. The review process is expected to conclude by the end of this year. For now, commercial harvesters like Herrmann have a license that permits them to take up to 2,000 pounds a day—a limit Herrmann said she doesn’t even clear in a season.

The mouth of the Russian River as it empties into the Pacific.

Mendocino County, directly north of Sonoma, is home to the Sho-ka-wah, or “east of the river people,” better known today as the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians. The term “Pomo” was merely a name used as an identifier, first by anthropologists. Historically, “pomo” was the name of the language that is today shared with 21 of the region’s federally recognized tribes.

“Don’t call me Pomo,” Knight tells me the first time I meet him sitting on a stretch of beach not far from his camp at Abalone Point. His words are expressive of the resentment that comes with years of wrestling with the non-Indigenous world. Near the water, his cousin, Hillary, is standing among strands of dark, wavy seaweed, sometimes snacking on them right from the rocks. Her father, Pat Renick, has kept the family connected by teaching family members like Shawn Padi, a former tribal chairman and cousin to Eddie Knight, traditional food-harvesting techniques and swapping family stories (Padi’s grandmother, Eddie Knight’s father, and Pat Renick’s mother were siblings). When Renick died in 2015, Padi and Knight were pallbearers at his funeral, where he was memorialized as one of the Pomo’s most respected modern traditionalists. (He was cited in 1978 for harvesting 100 abalone for an elder’s dinner without a license, a case that was ultimately dismissed by a sympathetic judge who allowed Renick to keep the confiscated shellfish.)

A sea palm found on the coast outside of Fort Bragg.
After the harvest, Shawn Padi walks back to his pickup truck to make the hour-and-a-half trek home.

The morning before Heidi Herrmann’s kombu expedition, Shawn Padi started up the engine of his new pickup truck and zigzagged his way west past Booneville and through the towering redwood forest until he reached the coast where he and Renick had bonded most—by the sea. Though Renick was Padi’s uncle, he regarded him more like a big brother and as the tribal leader scrambled down a craggy cliff toward the ocean, there was a sense of innocence returned. A yellow net bag dangled from Padi’s side as he carefully scaled the slick rocks draped in wet algae. Around his neck hung the state license which permitted him to take up to 10 pounds of wet seaweed per trip.

Later that day, as strips of sea lettuce dried on a tarp in the back of his pickup, Padi’s oldest daughter, Josie, 35, stopped by for a visit. She brought with her a paper plate stacked with Native foods. She had questions, too. The huckleberries she remembered picking with her father as a girl, but the other items—the madrones and pepperwood leaves—she struggled to identify. Most curious to her was the limey plant adorned with spikes. It was prickly and wild—a cucumber, Padi told her, and he asked where she got it. A white woman had given a presentation about the foods at the tribe’s headquarters earlier that day, she explained. The exchange reflected the traditional gulf that, to be sure, was not lost on Padi. “This is about protecting our identity. We weren’t a proud people. We are a proud people,” he said and vowed to keep his uncle’s pugnaciousness alive.

Heidi Herrmann harvesting kombu at a beach north of the Russian River’s outflow.
A kelp and seaweed forest at low tide in the early morning.

Tucked among rows of grapevines laced across the Shone Farm, an agricultural learning center at Santa Rosa Junior College, Herrmann and her crew stretch the last of the kombu on flatbed screens under a canopy of Sonoma sunlight. It’s here that the artisanal traits of the Strong Arm Farm brand materializes—a process best described as quality control.

“Seaweed is a new experience to some people so it has to be as welcoming as possible,” Herrmann says, snipping away at any trace of impairments to the kombu such as slight edges with algae buildup or strips perceived as too porous. “At nine dollars a bag, it needs to be perfect.”

As she empties bins of rinse water silky from the mucilaginous sea algae, Herrmann ponders how she could put this byproduct to use, another example of her continued mindfulness for sustainability. In many ways, her scientific respect for nature and its abundance was, then, not so different from the living traditions guiding the region’s Indigenous. “In the end, it’s about the knowledge we share,” says Herrmann, the perpetual educator. “I feel like that’s what Indigenous Peoples teach us.”

“I make sure to ask myself, ‘when have I made too much of an impact?’ That’s how I know when to stop and start, and then stop again.”

—Heidi Herrmann, owner of Strong Arm Farms

Volunteers for Strong Arm Farm hike back up from a beach near the mouth of the Russian River after picking seaweed at low tide.

Back in Hopland, Shawn Padi feasts on a small meal of abalone, seaweed, and locally sourced acorn, foods that he had harvested on his own and prepared in a way in which he was taught: breaded, sautéed, and mushed—less Instagrammable, perhaps, than what the high-end Bay Area eateries are serving up a few hours away. As he places oily strips of sea lettuce onto a blank, warm flour tortilla, he slips into the past and tells a story, a sea tale about the time his Uncle Pat nearly died while freediving for sea snails.

If agricultural engineering and book-learned sustainability was the way of horticulturists to explain and understand life by the sea, then reciting the Indigenous narrative is the way for Padi and others. “We’ve always been part of this ecosystem and our resiliency is proof to that,” he says as he bites into his seaweed burrito. It is traditional knowledge, no matter how modern, that makes Padi hopeful about the future. “Some people see our traditions as something that no longer exists when in fact, we’ve been here—we’ve always been here. It’s time for others to start seeing us for who we are.”

This article was reported in part with GATHER, a documentary and storytelling project chronicling the movement of Indigenous food sovereignty in the United States.

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