Bullwhip Kelp

Nereocyctis luetkeana

When we think of “forests”  there’s one we often overlook — the offshore kelp forest, largely made up of Bullwhip Kelp or Nereocystis luetkeana. Nereocystis (Greek for “mermaid’s bladder”) is the largest in the family of brown algae, and found along the coast of California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The fastest-growing kelp in the world, it is an “annual” seaweed, changing from a single spore in the spring to a mature plant by autumn.

A complete source of trace minerals, and protein, high in potassium, bullwhip kelp is entirely edible and has been harvested by humans for millennia. Indigenous people used the plant for food and also as a tool, weaving its long stipes into fishing lines and nets, and keeping the bulbs as storage for rendered fat and fish oil.

At Ocean Harvest, we have been harvesting Bullwhip kelp since 1999. We harvest only the “pig-tail” like frond tips, and then lovingly spread them out individually to dry to their vibrant green color. Twenty bull kelp plants produce 100 pounds of wet seaweed, which translates to 5-7 pounds of dried seaweed. (See the picture of the meticulously dried bull kelp).

Drying bull kelp in the sun.

We know that since 2014 to the present day, bull kelp has been on the decline for many reasons, two of them being a die-off of sea stars (predators of urchins) and then the warming of the ocean’s water due to climate change. When the urchins’ natural predators disappeared, the purple urchin populations exploded, moving into the nearshore intertidal region and consuming everything in sight – even other urchins – until their voracious appetites created underwater deserts known as “urchin barrens.”

Bull kelp forests declined up to 95% in some areas, causing negative ecological impacts throughout the entire nearshore food webs: the loss of kelp meant other species, like fish, crustaceans, and shellfish, reliant on kelp for food and shelter either starved, moved away, or decreased their reproductive rates.

This year, with the cooling temperature of the Pacific waters nearshore and the gradual resurgence of sea stars, the bull kelp along the Mendocino coast is once more abundant. We are so relieved!

Kelp resurgence in Mendocino. Photo credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer

It has been a struggle to harvest, and for two years we did not harvest bull kelp, given the diminishing kelp forests. We have been working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the regulations for harvesting bull kelp to preserve our small harvest. We have written letters, given public comments at several meetings, and meet regularly with other harvesters who serve on the Bull Kelp Working Group.

It is important that conscientious harvesters, who harvest less than 0.01% of existing kelp populations, are able to continue harvesting.

We possess invaluable expertise, and serve as “eyes on the ocean”: because we return to the same areas to harvest each year, we hold specialized, irreplaceable knowledge about seaweed and kelp populations.

This month we’re introducing you to a delightful recipe that I make using bull kelp, along with fresh basil and wild weeds like plantain and dandelion greens for you!

We also have a GREAT deal for you to get some of that ground bull kelp for the recipe! Any purchase over $60 during the month of September, we will include a ½ ounce of bull kelp powder for your eating pleasure! It can be used in the recipe, on popcorn and anything you want to sprinkle a delightfully umami flavor on.

Wild Weed Pesto with Bullwhip Kelp

  • 1 cup basil
  • ½ cup dandelion greens and/or plantain leaves
  • ½ cup cilantro or parsley
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup nutritional yeast
  • ½ cup nuts and/or seeds (I like Brazil nuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds)
  • ¼ cup hemp seeds
  • 3 Tablespoons Bull Whip Kelp powdered/ground

Combine everything in a high-speed blender. Blend and add more olive oil as needed to make a creamy basil. If you want a bit more “pop”, you can add either more lemon juice, or salt.

Can be used on pasta, pizza, as a spread for sandwiches, and on chips or crackers. 

Keeps in refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. I cover mine with olive oil before refrigerating and it keeps longer.

2 thoughts on “Bullwhip Kelp

  1. I’m so glad to hear the bullwhip kelp is returning! I’ve noticed a striking absence of it on the north Oregon coast over the last ten years. I hope what you observe continues up on the coast!

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