On an unusually sunny January day, the Port of Garibaldi was bustling with incoming hauls of Dungeness crab and fish.
But there was another seafood, more unusual in these parts, swirling in 1,500-gallon tanks near the shoreline of Tillamook Bay. A few curious fishers peered over the top of the rows of 20 bubbling, open-air tubs.
“What’s in the tanks?” one woman asked.
Each tank held about 500 pounds of dulse, a cold water, red seaweed native to the Oregon coast. It’s a high-protein, carbon-absorbing vegetable that can be farmed without any fresh water.
The Oregon Seaweed company hopes you’ll want to eat it.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Alanna Kieffer, vice president of sales and marketing for Oregon Seaweed. “It’s really good for you and really good for the environment in so many different ways.”
This is the second land-based seaweed farm for Oregon Seaweed. The first opened in Bandon in 2018 with 10 tanks. The Garibaldi farm, double the size, started last year. The company believes itself to be the largest land-based seaweed farmer in the U.S., and while superlatives are generally hard to prove, they seem to be correct.
Nearly all the world’s seaweed harvest comes from Asia, with China, Indonesia and the Philippines the largest producers. Seaweed sales are a $15 billion global business, but it’s still a relatively boutique market in the U.S.
Oregon Seaweed is one of only two producers in the state currently farming dulse for human consumption.
The company was founded by Chuck Toombs, who spent a career working in sales and marketing for manufacturing companies before becoming an instructor at Oregon State University’s College of Business.
“I saw all this research that was coming out of Oregon State,” he said, “and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to take something actively being worked on at OSU and apply it while I’m teaching marketing to the students.”
Six years ago, Toombs visited OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center looking for potential product ideas for his business classes.
That’s where Chris Langdon, a professor of fisheries, introduced him to dulse.
In the 1990s, Langdon started experimenting using dulse in a co-culture system with abalone, a type of edible marine snail. When kept in a tank together, the abalone ate the dulse, and the dulse absorbed the ammonia and carbon dioxide excreted by the abalone. The seaweed was also effective in removing ammonia from salmon tanks.
Langdon’s team had patented a particularly fast-growing variety of dulse. Offhand, he mentioned to Toombs that he’d seen a similar seaweed selling at a local grocery for close to $60 a pound.
“And (Toombs) got very excited about that,” Langdon said. “That’s more expensive than filet mignon.”
Toombs saw a business potential that went beyond just a classroom assignment. In 2015, Toombs licensed the use of the fast-growing dulse strain OSU had developed and launched his own company dedicated to farming dulse for food.
“Funny enough, it was only until Chuck came along and knocked on my door that he kind of woke me up to this potential,” Langdon said. “I’d seen dulse in the local organic food store in Newport, but I didn’t really put two and two together. I’m always looking through a biologist lens, but Chuck was looking through a business lens.”
Oregon Seaweed pumps water straight from the ocean at high tide into their port-side tanks. The water is aerated with a bubbler so the algae rotates, allowing each plant time at the top of the tank to soak in the sun. The seaweed is free-floating in the tanks, so harvesting is as simple as scooping it out with a net.
“We essentially start with a clump of seaweed that clones itself over time,” Kieffer said. “It gets all its nutrients from the seawater that we pump in. The clumps get larger and larger and will eventually break apart, and those two clumps will keep growing.”
With plenty of sunlight, the dulse can grow at a rate of about 200 grams per square meter per day. That makes it a fast-growing, low-cost protein source.
But the big question is: How does it taste?
“If you eat it fresh, it has a crunch to it, it kind of tastes to me like a salty carrot,” Kieffer said.
Cooking not only turns the red seaweed green, it pulls out a smoky, umami flavor.
“It’s quite unlike what you would expect,” Langdon said. “It has actually a savory flavor.”
Langdon and Toombs had a viral moment back in 2015 after working with OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland. The center’s test kitchens tried various ways of cooking with dulse hoping to find a U.S. market for it. They found that deep frying it produces a crispy, salty treat that tastes sort of like bacon.
“Bacon-flavored seaweed” headlines made international news.
Dulse can be eaten like kale or spinach, added to a fresh salad or cooked into a stir fry or pasta. The Salmonberry restaurant in Wheeler has used dried, ground dulse to add flavor to pasta noodles and specialty butters. Local grocery stores, including Wild in Manzanita and the Astoria Co-op, sell retail packs of Oregon Seaweed’s fresh dulse. The current price is $13-$15 a pound.
The company also sees potential for dulse as a protein source to feed livestock or use in food processing.
“Seaweed is not necessarily something people have grown up eating in our culture,” Kieffer said. “Getting people to take it home, try it out in their kitchens, put it into different foods, is really the key to getting people to enjoy it.”
It also turns out that there are subtle flavor differences in the dulse grown in Bandon and the dulse grown in Garibaldi, even though they’re all clones of the same varietal. Toombs compares it to wine grapes, which take on different flavor profiles based on climate and soil.
That, too, could be a marketing point, allowing for various “seaweed blends” and flavor pairings.
Toombs is only half-joking when he says, “We’re the pinot noir of seaweeds.”
For information on how to order fresh dulse seaweed, visit oregonseaweed.com.