Tofino, BC –
Stevie Dennis has always felt a natural affinity with the sea. Growing up on the west coast of Vancouver Island, he has spent his entire life working and living on boats. Whether as a commercial fisherman, diver or whale watching guide, he has tried it all. But nothing called him like the kelp did.
That’s why more than a year ago, Dennis and his business partner, Jordan White, launched Naas Foods, an Indigenous-run company that produces organic kelp products in Tofino.
Following in the footsteps of Louis Druehl, North America’s first commercial kelp operator, the co-founders have been building a kelp farm in Clayoquot Sound for three years.
Not only do they see this decision as a solution to deal with food shortages, but also as a means of tackling the problems of climate change.
Seaweed aquaculture is a rapidly growing sector of global food production, offering opportunities to mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that global warming stems, in large part, from excess carbon in the atmosphere.
“Without increased and urgent mitigation ambition in the coming years, leading to a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming will exceed 1.5C in the following decades, leading to a loss irreversible destruction of the most fragile ecosystems, and crisis after crisis for the most vulnerable people and societies,” the report reads.
By integrating the natural benefits of kelp into everyday life, the duo see it as an opportunity to give back to the environment, while expanding what people think kelp is capable of.
While waiting to get an aquatic plant permit from the province, Dennis and White remain hopeful of having an in-water kelp farm near Tofino by this time next year.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have used wild bull and giant kelp harvested from Ahousaht traditional territory to create a line of kelp products.
Although they plan to continue harvesting wild kelp to stay connected to the ecosystem, Dennis said a farm would allow them to relieve some of the pressure from wildlife.
Last April marked the launch of their first product, Keltsmaht Kelp – a plant-based probiotic designed to increase crop yield without conventional fertilizers.
Dennis and White tested more than 60 variations of “vegetable food” before publishing it.
It caught on quickly and was picked up by Vancouver Island garden stores, but kelp enthusiasts were just getting started.
They have since expanded their repertoire to include seafood salad, which residents and visitors to the West Coast can find at local restaurants, including Pluvio, and local food distributors, like the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild ( TUCG).
Bobby Lax, TUCG’s community food co-ordinator, said while the seaweed salad is not yet a “big seller”, he felt it was important to help Dennis and White develop a market for kelp.
“Two things that make food feel good is usually where it came from and that it hasn’t traveled too long to get to you because it still tastes and fresh,” said Lax said.
Naas Foods considers locally harvested foods an “important resource that both tastes great and has a ton of health benefits,” he added.
It made sense for the TUCG to incorporate kelp into its weekly meal plan and find a way to get more people on their plates, Lax said.
Kelp only started becoming a staple in people’s diets in the last 10 years, Dennis said.
Every year it becomes more “user-friendly”, he said.
Naas also offers dried whole kelp, frozen kelp cubes for smoothies, and smoked kelp flakes that can be used as a seasoning.
Using wood chips from a factory in Chemainus, White said he experimented with 25 different batches of smoke before landing on the “perfect combination using a few different local woods.”
There are a lot of “cool things you can do with it for food,” he said, adding that as Naas expands, they hope to create replacements for imported items like pasta.
Building a deeper relationship with kelp highlighted the need to create a food economy less dependent on foreign products, Dennis said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced this need, he added.
“We need more food security,” he said. “And we need greener ways of working.”
As the benefits of algae gain traction around the world, “there’s no cap” for what the industry can do, White said.
Mimicking the underwater ecosystem, Dennis and White take an integrative approach to their business.
That’s why it seemed “a no-brainer” to incorporate a fresh seafood market into their distribution and storefront, Dennis said.
By purchasing fresh fish from the five Nuu-chah-nulth nations that make up the T’aaq-wiihak fisheries, Dennis said he is able to help his uncles, cousins and relatives in Ahousaht and neighboring nations. continue to practice their traditional ways of life.
After processing the fish in-house, Dennis and White tag it, indicating the day it was caught and the fisherman who caught it.
“We hope to bring traceability back to the fishing industry,” White said.
By selling off often overlooked species, including rockfish, the duo hope to take the pressure off some of the keystone species, like salmon, which many studies show are on the brink of extinction.
“People are okay with the whole seasonality,” Dennis said. “With the availability of fish that the T’aaq-wiihak can catch, we can begin to fill these gaps.
Mike David normally works for a nearby fish farm on a harvest boat, but found himself out of work when the boats were sent out for maintenance last summer. The Tla-o-qui-aht man instead began fishing for the T’aaq-wiihak fisheries.
This summer, he plans to take time off from fish farming to work for T’aaq-wiihak fisheries for a second season.
“I made more money fishing than I would have working,” said David, who grew up fishing.
On any given weekend last summer, Dennis said there could be as many as 20 T’aaq-wiihak boats fishing.
“It stimulates an economy that is growing right here in the community,” he said. “It’s food on the table and clothes on the backs of children for school.”
As seafood lovers, providing fresh fish is something they are passionate about. But when trading partners look to the future, images of rich kelp forests along western Vancouver Island cloud their minds.
“We see kelp as the future,” Dennis said.
“It’s the future,” White echoed.