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A Little Kelp From My Friends

A Little Kelp From My Friends Lucky Peach


By practically all accounts, the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, founded in 1980, was California’s first commercial seaweed operation. It’s based in Philo, nineteen miles inland, far enough from the sea for the hot sun to dry the seaweed. John and Barbara Lewallen live there in a house without walls. Barbara took the walls out when John found himself unable to walk: the diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A tumor had wrapped itself around his spinal cord, and suddenly he was paraplegic. The doctors said he’d never be able to walk again, but John can walk now. (“We like to joke that we don’t know if it was the green tea, the seaweed, or the pot,” Barbara says.)

The plan, at first, was to be a lawyer. John went to Stanford Law School for a year, dropped out, headed to Vietnam to volunteer in the war — “refugee relief kind of thing” — and “when I came back from that I was all whacked out,” John says. (He and Barbara think it was his exposure to Agent Orange there that caused the lymphoma.) “So I came here and started backpacking seaweed off the beach. Now it has become my spiritual path.”

Stashed in: Ecology!, San Francisco!, Under the sea!, Ecology

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There hasn’t ever been a case of seaweed species becoming endangered on account of overharvesting.

When it comes to seaweed — sea palm aside — Fish and Game are pretty hands off. In the past thirty years, they’ve come to favor commercial harvesters, who are trusted to harvest properly and sustainably. Mechanical harvesting of bull kelp has been banned north of San Francisco. It’s a rough ocean, so shore harvesting almost certainly has to be done by hand, and the damage that these small, hand-harvested operations can do is minimal — or seems so, anyway. Seaweed is the basis for the ocean’s food chain: almost everything in the ocean eats seaweed (or eats something that eats seaweed), so it’s necessarily abundant. With the exception of that spell of improper sea palm harvesting, there hasn’t ever been a case of seaweed species becoming endangered on account of overharvesting.

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