Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Local knowledge helps provide a safe harvest when foraging for edible seaweeds on Victorian beaches.
It’s a capricious combination of environmental conditions, good organisation and local knowledge that makes for a successful seaweed forage.
At Katie Cove in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Williamstown, the black lava rocks that dominate the shoreline seem bleak and unwelcoming from afar. But for those willing to tackle the treacherously slippery rocks and investigate what emerges as the tide recedes, the cove reveals an abundance of life.
“The forest of Neptunes Necklace (Hormosira banksii) at Williamstown is amazing, and it provides habitat for many different kinds of sea snails,” says natural historian and foraging guide Chris Rockley.
She is among those who have spent many hundreds of hours exploring, learning and documenting what lives in the cove – particularly its macroalgae, as seaweeds are formally known.
And when the time, tide and the weather combine just so to provide “reasonable” conditions, she also hosts seaweed foraging tours, or seaweed rambles at the cove, sharing her knowledge with others.
Among the seaweeds at Katie Cove is the species she knows as “Deadman’s Fingers”. It provided one of her first encounters with aquatic plants when, as a young girl, she would wade in the waters of Lake Macquarie in NSW, near her home.
The firm but velvety tubes of Codium fragile brushing like small tentacles against her feet left a lasting impression and a lifelong fascination with aquatic plants. A Bachelor degree in Natural History Illustration drew together her interest in art and science, and a love for life outdoors.
When she moved from Newcastle to Melbourne in 2014, the plants in the landscape were entirely different, she says. But those along the coast remained comfortably familiar, including Deadman’s Fingers, now officially known as Velvet Horns.
A seaweed drawing class she ran in conjunction with marine photographer Robert Gardiner led to her first seaweed forage for Permaculture Out West in 2016. While she continues to run illustration classes, more and more of her time involves seaweeds. She has been a contributor, for instance, to the newly launched Aquatic Plant Names Standard, helping to establish Velvet Horns as the agreed common name for Australia’s collection of Codium species.
Her favourite among these diversely shaped green species remains Codium fragile which is found along the Australian coastline from Champion Bay in Western Australia to Tasmania, and along the east coast to Ballina, Queensland. It’s also delicious used fresh, cut into smaller pieces as part of a lemon dressed salad.
Clean and legal
In 2018 Chris expanded her foraging tours to Point Cook in Wyndham City Council, further west on Port Philip Bay, which offers a slightly different collection of seaweeds. Parks Victoria allows foraging for beach cast seaweeds along the shore of the Point Cook Coastal Park. But in the adjacent Point Cook Marine Sanctuary, it is illegal to take anything at all from the beach. And the harvest of growing seaweeds from the water is prohibited.
Hobsons Bay Council, which includes Williamstown, permits collection of beach cast seaweed. But Chris says what is allowed varies from council to council and even beach to beach.
For anyone planning to go foraging, it pays to check with the local council, or the relevant state government authority, such as Parks Victoria where it is the relevant land manager for the beach you’re planning to visit.
There are also practical considerations in any foraging adventure, Chris says. Not just the tides and weather, but also the water quality and the condition of the seaweed collected.
“Katie Cove is a popular dog beach, so you need to consider whether dogs might have been visiting your seaweed.
"And while there’s often plenty of seaweed to gather after a storm, there are also flushes of stormwater into the bay which affect water quality, and which might make your harvest potentially unsafe to eat.”
Her focus is on seaweeds and coastal plants that can be eaten or used to create garden mulch and fertilisers. Chris has developed a foraging guide that includes 20 edible algae species commonly found in Port Philip Bay and south-west along the Victorian coast to Anglesea.
There ten brown seaweeds, five red and five green species, all of which can be used as an ingredient in some form: fresh, dried or smoked, in soups and salads, in condiments, pickles and gravies. It also includes five coastal plants: Beaded Glasswort, Karkalla, Sea Rocket, Salt Bush and Warrigal Greens.
Wakame: friend or foe?
Among the brown species listed is Wakame, Undaria pinnatifida, grown extensively in Japan and Korea and widely used in the cuisine of these countries.
In Victoria, Wakame is an invasive marine species that government agencies are working to control (and potentially eradicate).
In Tasmania, the species has a similar pest status, although it has not proven to be as invasive as originally feared when it first appeared in Australian waters in 1988.
Investigations are underway in Tasmania into the possibility of farming the species. . Locally harvested Wakame already has markets in both food and pharmaceutical products.
Chris says she often has Japanese visitors join her foraging tours and they’re all keen to see the Wakame. The production of this species in Japan has been declining for more than a decade, in part because of changing environmental conditions.
To see the Wakame, she says, you need to visit the beaches in late winter or spring when it is growing most prolifically.
“That’s one of the surprising things I’ve discovered as I’ve learned more about seaweeds – the seasonality of them. The green species grow pretty much year-round, but the reds and browns seem to grow most strongly in the colder weather.”
Five tips for a successful seaweed forage
Check with the relevant local council or coastal park authority that it is legal to forage for seaweed.
Identify and avoid any potential water pollutants at your chosen location.
Only collect seaweed that is floating in the water or freshly cast onto the beach.
Time your visit as the tide is going out so that seaweeds you collect are as fresh as possible.
If you plan to eat the seaweed you collect, identify the species and how to prepare it before doing so. Not all seaweeds are palatable or safe to eat.
More information: Chris Rockley: www.chrisrockley.com
For more stories about seaweed in Australia (and New Zealand) visit Coretext's seaweed initiative www.seaweednews.au