Safety and Standards

Working with the Wind, Weather, and Seasons

Seaweeds have their seasons just like plants in my garden. When the weather is cold enough to freeze water and daylight is lengthening after the winter solstice, kelp fronds are in prime condition and free of pesty snails that will appear in later summer to devour them. So do I harvest kelp in late February? No! Read that sentence again! “When the weather is cold enough to freeze water” means that Larch, who is mostly made of water, is going to come home “numb and dumb” if he tries to harvest kelp in February! Repeated exposure to conditions that cause hypothermia will damage the body. A true seaweed harvester is committed to the long haul: a lifetime of work. Pace yourself, over the decades. And besides, it’s difficult to dry kelp when the weather is that cold. So, a compromise: Caulk and launch the boats in late March and early April (when it’s sunny and warm enough on land to enjoy a day of boat preparation and repair), then launch the boats and do a shakedown harvest close to home in late April. By early May, all systems (and that includes 100 fans in the dryers) should be “good to go”.

The Standard for Good Drying

I’ve been doing this work for more than four decades. In the early years, I dried kelp outside on a system of clotheslines that I established at the high tide line: 1500 feet of lines and 1500 clothespins was considered to be enough for a day’s work. I own three bushels of clothespins. We get high pressure and three days of good drying weather about four times a month, and if that high pressure coincides with the extreme low tides that occur after the new and full moon, well then it makes sense to dry kelp outdoors. The extreme low tides occur in the early morning hours, and I say to the crew, “Be suited up and ready to go by 3 a.m.” We spend an hour in the boats journeying to the kelp beds, two hours watching sunrise and cutting and hauling a ton of kelp into the boats, and by mid-morning, the crew is back home having brunch and getting ready to hang up kelp to dry. If all goes well, the kelp will be hung up by mid-afternoon. During high pressure weather, there will be a fair weather breeze from the southwest in the afternoon (warming air over the land rises, and the cooler heavier air from the water comes in underneath toward the drying lines), and the kelp will lose 60% of its moisture on the first day. If the weather holds, the kelp will be outside on the lines overnight, and by mid-afternoon on the second day, we will be taking kelp down and tying it up in tarp bundles. This process is reminiscent of a hay season on a thousand acres farm in Minnesota that belonged to my aunt and uncle. As a boy, I worked with a crew that understood how to “make hay while the sun shines”. On a good day, there were at least a thousand bales of hay somewhere in the process, headed toward the barn. On a good day of “making kelp hay” there’s at least a wet ton of kelp headed toward becoming two hundred pounds of dry kelp.

But what happens if the drying weather goes foul? Kelp that dries too slowly will not retain all of its minerals within its cell walls, and these salts (and sometimes sugars) will come to surface. Toward the end of the drying process, kelp becomes hygroscopic, that is, it has a tendency to absorb moisture from the air. Toward the end of the drying process, the air that’s drying the kelp must be warm and dry if the process is to be completed. A kelp harvester who relies on outside drying quickly learns that on the second day, the kelp must be snatched off the lines before the late afternoon air (which is getting cooler and humid as the sun drops in the sky) dampens and softens the bone dry kelp! If you want to see a crew work fast, watch four people take down 1500 kelp plants at 3:30 p.m. on a sunny day in June with thunder clouds coming in from the west! It CAN be done in an hour!

I’m convinced that in the summertime, NOAA weather radio describes weather as “mostly sunny” in order to give tourists a little bit of hope, when, in actual fact, it would be more truthful to say that the weather today will be “mostly cloudy”. Likewise, the fishermen say that on NOAA weather radio, when the announcer says that the wind will be 5-15 mph, best to add them together, and when the forecast is 15-25 mph, best to multiply! For awhile, NOAA weather had a computer voice announcer that had been developed in the midwest to get the listener’s attention and warn of tornados. The voice was male, authoritative in a friendly way, and reassuring. We began to refer to that voice as “Uncle Knute”. One day, when I was especially exasperated with Uncle Knute’s promoting tourism and betraying our trust, and the weather turned foul while we had a ton of kelp hanging outside on the lines, I said to my apprentices that the original voice that NOAA weather radio had used to gather the phonemes for the computer voice was taken from a recording of an old pedophile locked up in a back ward in an insane asylum in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. After that, my apprentices learned to maintain a healthy distrust of Uncle Knute’s forecasts when they heard him predicting sunny days on NOAA weather radio. Usually we have three days of high pressure and good drying weather, starting with strong wind from the northwest. If we can anticipate that high, we’ll go out before the strong winds come and fill the boats, even if it means a dark harvest in the wee hours of the morning. Then we find ourselves hanging kelp while the high pressure system blows in. If the wind persists, we go westward to the far shore of the bay and harvest in the lee of that shore on the second day of the high. Then we can blow home with a following wind. On the third day, with the seas somewhat calmed down, we have to decide if we should hang it outdoors or bring it up the hill to the dryers, anticipating the low pressure that will bring damp weather unfit for outdoor drying.

Gradually I came to appreciate the advantages of indoor drying. Using fans and wood stoves for backup heat, the process could be controlled. Once the kelp was hung up, the work was simply “watch the temperature”. I developed a standard that could be summarized as “bone dry within 48 hours of harvest at temperatures less than 85 degrees F.” In this way, the enzymes were unaltered by heat, and the raw foodist customers were kept happy. I found a laser digital thermometer that read the surface temperature wherever I aimed the red dot of the laser. The crew member who was given this instrument was soon in charge of administering the fires and entertaining the cat.