The sea around us is well known for providing the fish that’s been the staple of the Cornish maritime economy for centuries. But beneath the surface of the water swirls a diverse and beautiful jungle that’s been relatively overlooked. Seaweeds are vital to life on earth: they produce the oxygen in every other breath we breathe when they photosynthesise. They’re also a delicious and abundant source of food.
We met up with Caroline Warwick-Evans from The Cornish Seaweed Company to find out more…
The company started when Caro, who had graduated in Renewable Energy, returned to the UK in 2012 after working overseas to find a slump in the renewables market and no employment. After hearing a Radio 4 programme about seaweed harvesting in Ireland she did a bit of research only to find that there was nothing like that at all going on in England despite the abundance of seaweed on our coast.
She enlisted her friend Tim van Berkel, a conservation biologist, and they set off to the west coast of Ireland where they were trained in harvesting, drying, processes, and all things seaweed by an eccentric couple who run a seaweed company there.
Caro and Tim returned to Cornwall and set the ball rolling, building The Cornish Seaweed Company from scratch. They gained licenses from the Crown Estate who own most of the foreshore, and setting up a Code of Conduct for Seaweed Harvesting with Natural England. They initially worked unpaid and lived out of caravans, harvesting seaweed all day in all weathers, constructing sheds and drying racks from scrap in their spare time.
It took two years for the business to really take off. After some tough months things started to fall into place: they were picked up by Tesco and Waitrose, featured on Sky News and more importantly, moved out of a caravan and into a house. About a year later they gained backing from Cornish Sea Salt, and now they head up a team of 10, supplying edible seaweed to stockists around the country.
“We harvest from April to October, usually about 15 days a month, working from our 16ft rib the Cornish Sea Badger in wetsuits and snorkelling gear,” describes Caro.
Only cutting during the growing season ensures the venture remains environmentally sustainable. Their 5-mile licensed area is divided into sections so they can harvest in rotation and carry out tests on seaweed quality and regrowth.
Last summer they hand cut 10,000kg of seaweed, working around Coverack in south Cornwall. The unusual geology here gives local seaweeds a remarkably high concentration of trace elements making them nutritious superfoods. The unique biological properties of seaweed also means that it’s not only great to eat but can be used to detox and cleanse.
“We’re planning on developing our range of products, looking into fresh seaweed as well as seaweed seasonings,” says Caro of their plans for the future. “We have applied for licenses to harvest an area on the north coast as well as the west coast of the Lizard, more for security really. We may look into cultivating in tanks rather than a bigger coastal harvesting operation. We’ll always cut by hand as it is gentle on the marine ecosystems and we have no plans to ever change that.”
And the best part of the job?
“Getting to work out on the beautiful Cornish coastline! Once we went underwater to harvest and were accompanied by two huge grey seals swimming around with us, playing with us, biting our flippers…”
Read more about The Cornish Seaweed Company on their website: cornishseaweed.co.uk