Books Worth Reading: Regenerative Ocean Farming

I’m not sure how I came to read Eat Like a Fish, except that I had heard of kelp farming and was vaguely curious about it. I grew up in Louisiana and tend to think that seafood is my birthright, but I’ve become uneasily aware that the shrimp, lobster, crabs, and fish that I love so much are not readily sustainable. Bren Smith was a commercial fisherman for much of his life, and the first part of his book is the series of salty stories that made up his life on the ocean. Then he goes on to dismantle any illusion that his former way of life was sustainable. Commercial fishing? Larger more desperate boats chasing smaller, fewer fish.  Read his descriptions of fish and shrimp farms and you’ll have a vivid mental picture of why they contribute to pollution. You also realize that, one way or another, all humankind’s sins on land roll into the ocean eventually. CAFOs and their manure burden, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, plastics, garbage, you name it, it’s headed for the oceans, however indirect the path.

Then Smith goes on to propose a solution, and one that he is actually living out. The farming of kelp and shellfish requires no fertilizers and actually cleans ocean water by filtration, as well as sequestering carbon in surprising amounts. The ocean around a kelp farm  is cleaner and more diverse. Greenwave, an organization that supports ocean farmers, states: “Through a mix of reforestation and regenerative ocean farming, recent studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that growing seaweed in 3.8% of federal waters off the California coast could completely neutralize California’s agricultural emissions. According to the World Bank, farming seaweeds in less than 5% of U.S. waters could absorb 10 million tons of nitrogen and 135 million tons of carbon–all with no freshwater or other inputs.” Much more and a nice little diagram of how it works can be found on their website: https://www.greenwave.org/our-model

Human uses for shellfish are obvious, and I’m all in for any solution that requires me to eat more oysters and scallops. But what about all that kelp? Well, there are a lot of industrial and scientific uses for kelp, but I won’t go into them here because my emphasis is on food. And I’m probably a good test case because I’ve always hated seaweed. Other than sushi nori, which is a rather highly processed form of kelp,  I have never tasted a seaweed product that I would willingly take a second bite of. But as it turns out, kelp is infinitely versatile in the kitchen. I’ve written before about the kelp salsas and other ocean and foraged products made by Barnacle Foods, and all I’ll add here is that the salsas are very tasty indeed, kelp is the main ingredient, and you won’t taste any beachy fishy flavors. They have a few grades of hotness, but I’ve decided that I prefer to get the mild Original and jazz  it up with some chopped chipotles in adobo. The salsa verde is a mild tomatillo-type salsa, although the main ingredient is kelp, and it’s delicious for huevos rancheros verde when liberally strewn with chopped cilantro and jalapeños.


I also have to mention their Bullwhip hot sauce, a mildly hot kelp concoction that has earned its place in my kitchen by adding meaty umami flavors as well as some heat, and I love their furikake. Just love it. It’s the nicest thing that ever happened to an egg salad sandwich, it’s great on simple rice dishes, and on evenings when I’m not very hungry, a slice of sourdough bread toasted, spread generously with homemade olive oil mayonnaise, and heavily snowed with furikake is my current favorite snack.

The most exciting part of regenerative ocean cookery is feeling that the best is yet to come. Top chefs are being exposed to ocean farming products and we don’t know yet what all they’ll come up with. We don’t know what home cooks could come up with if they had access to the product. Recently I used a piece of Pacific kombu to make broth, and then realized that the remaining piece of kelp had no fishy flavor or much taste of any kind and was tough as nails, but when cut into very fine strips it resembled the texture of tree ear fungus. I used it that way cooked into a Chinese dish, as a bouncy rubbery texture food, and it worked fine. People are experimenting with making kelp pasta, or you can buy readymade kelp penne and rotini. You can also get readymade kelp noodles, as distinguished from kelp pasta, which are 100% kelp and, in my opinion, are best used in Asian dishes because of the bouncy, crunchy texture.

Nutritionally, kelp contains lots of fiber both soluble and insoluble, and in addition to other micronutrients is an important source of iodine. The National Thyroid Association keeps warning us that 40% of the world is at least borderline deficient in iodine, and there is kelp waiting to solve the problem for us. It’s also a great fertilizer and I feed a lot of it to my soil and animals.

Currently  I’m looking for a bulk source of kitchen-grade kelp to experiment with, and if I find a good supply, I’ll be reporting on the results. Lactic fermentation seems like a natural use, and no doubt there are scads of other uses waiting to happen. After all, it was only recently that an enterprising couple looked at kelp and thought “Salsa! Hot sauce!”

I have seen articles about growing kelp at home in an aquarium with “seawater” made on the stove, and this is where I draw the line about home food production. Kelp belongs in the ocean, doing its work to keep the oceans going, and I’ll leave it there. Find ethical kelp farmers and support the hell out of them when you find them.

 

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