Seaquoia harvests the deep (under the bay) forests to produce captivating edible kelp

You can find Seaquoia at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market every Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Seaquoia, a homegrown seaweed merchant, is one of the only of its kind around Monterey Bay, and sells a wide range of products made from wild kelp.

I grew up eating seaweed. As a Los Angeles native and Asian American, the stuff was everywhere: in sushi, in the occasional boutique salad, in the soups my mom made.

But I always assumed it came from far-flung parts of the world, imported in dried or sealed form from China, Japan or South Korea. Most of it is: According to a 2020 market analysis conducted by the Island Institute, imports accounted for over 98% of the approximately 16,085,000 pounds of seaweed Americans consumed in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.

Ian O’Hollaren’s Seaquoia is trying to change that. Harvesting throughout Monterey Bay, O’Hollaren sells a wide array of edible kelp varietals — fresh and dried — from his stand at the farmers market in downtown Santa Cruz. He also sells iodine supplements and a nonedible plant fertilizer made from local giant kelp — although, he says, you could technically drink the fertilizer if you really wanted to. It’s just water and macerated seaweed.

“We have this resource here,” O’Hollaren told Lookout this week. “We should definitely be using it.”

The name Seaquoia refers to the hidden forests of giant kelp that lie underneath the waves of coastal California. A diver for 15 years, O’Hollaren founded his company in 2015 after graduating with a degree in tropical horticulture from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. There, he developed a taste for ocean flora — both as a food and as a fertilizer, which he says was integral to the small Big Island farms he worked on.

“It’s an ancient tradition of bringing those nutrients from the sea back onto the land to restore soils and depleted lands and livestock and whatnot,” O’Hollaren says. “It’s always been a thing, throughout history, all over coastal areas.”

Traveling up and down the California coast after returning from Hawaii, O’Hollaren noticed the untapped potential of Monterey Bay for harvesting edible seaweed. Though artisanal seaweed harvesting has bloomed in recent years along the North Coast, he says, few if anyone is doing what he’s doing in or near Santa Cruz County.

For now, O’Hollaren’s operation is just him. On most days, he boats, kayaks or walks the seashores to collect his crop, tests what he collects for pollutants and seaborne illnesses via a local lab, and sells it either fresh or dried. He makes his kelp supplements and fertilizer himself.

Ask O’Hollaren for samples of the fresh and dried kelp from his stand at the downtown farmers market on Wednesday. Currently, that’s the only farmer’s market where he sells, having stopped setting up at the one in Westside Santa Cruz. His fresh dwarf rockweed is remarkably tasty, having a deep umami flavor that fills the mouth. His cat’s tongue, while brinier than the rockweed, has an aptly interesting and firm texture, and would go great in a salad.

“I’ve been experimenting with all this stuff and I love them all,” O’Hollaren says. “Each thing helps a different part of humanity. The fertilizer’s great for farmers, the kelp supplement is great for medicine, the culinary uses are really good. They all serve a different purpose.”

You can find Seaquoia at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market or online here.