Nori Harvesting Along the Mendocino Coast

Toasted nori is an incredibly delicious and nutritious snack. The secret starts with harvesting it in the clean Pacific waters off the Mendocino coast. Matthew Frey has been doing this for years and Tuesday I had a chance to go collecting with him.

Since the tide was a super- low one,  -1.7,  the first thing he wanted to do was dive for abalone with two fellows. He had promised to show them the place where the big abalone could be found. This is story is about nori and if we’re lucky, I’ll have time to weave the story of abalone hunting tomorrow.

North of Fort Bragg, Matthew stopped in one of the many coastal access trails along California’s Hwy 1. We scrambled down the coastal cliff carpeted in lush vegetation. He was down to the shore in no time, followed by his tiny companions, Cayo and Piqi. These little dogs go everywhere with him. Together, the three glided over rocks while I was still clutching at Coyote Bushes and easing down the cliff. When I caught up with them, Matthew pointed out the shiny dark olive-green seaweeds draped over a huge boulder.

My knowledge of the intertidal zone is limited to the relatively quiet waters of the Salish Sea, otherwise known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, far to the north. That water separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island. Up there, nori or Porphyra, grows slowly. When the tide is out, the seaweed that grows high up on the shore, looks shiny black and appears plastered on the rocks. I have never seen much of it, but here, along California’s coast, nori grows in thick patches, layer-upon-layer.  Matthew showed me how to tear off the seaweed without ripping the holdfast that anchors it to the rocks.

Allow me a brief digression here: I love seaweeds! I love the way they grow in a nutrient-rich broth that is the sea. Seaweeds don’t need roots! They drink minerals from the surface of their leaf-like blades. They don’t need to fight gravity the way terrestrial beings do; seaweeds float. The trade-off is that these marine plants need to be sturdy enough to withstand the pounding surf. Not only that, but they need to survive the desert conditions of low tide. Imagine three- to six- hour stretches of exposure to the rays of the sun, when the tide rolls away. These plants are highly adaptable! Well, since I did say a “brief digression”, I’ll get back to the story.

After filling our bags, we returned to the car and drove up the coast. A few miles farther we pulled over at another of his favorite spots. The trail wound through ceanothus and a field interspersed with Monterray pine and cypress. Along the edge of the cliff, Pacific Coast Iris were blooming in patches. I could see them close up as we descended the trail. We began gathering more nori.

Matthew showed me places where other harvesters had come before us. One patch was reduced to shreds. At a second location, the seaweed looked like young spring growth and we guessed that it had been cut and allowed to regrow. Sustainable wildcrafting, or gathering plants in the wild, requires sensitivity to the ecology and respect for limits. A Pomo tribal man showed Matthew how to harvest many years ago. See the next post for cleaning and drying the nori.

One thought on “Nori Harvesting Along the Mendocino Coast

  1. Hey hey there … my friend and I are interning at Ecology Action in Willits and are looking to do some harvesting this weekend. If you have any other tips please pass them on. Thanks.

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