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Before You Forage: Sea Lettuce

Everything you ever wondered about sea lettuce

Learning to forage for sustenance is a convenient and exciting way to spend a day. In Humboldt County you can find your next snack or meal on the coast or in the forest—if you know what to look for.

One easy item you can forage for is sea lettuce, an edible green algae scientifically known as Ulva lactuca. Sea lettuce looks similar to garden-grown lettuce, as it has ruffly, thin leaves that bunch together, forming a head.

This vibrant green algae is found along coastlines worldwide, typically in tidal zones on rocks and docks. Ollie Relfe, a British blogger and self-professed nutrition expert, says sea lettuce offers antioxidant qualities and is a great source of vitamins A, C and E, to name a few.

Sea lettuce thrives in areas with high levels of nutrients or pollutants, which makes harvesting for consumption depend on water quality. A bushel of sea lettuce from a remote beach is surely more pristine than a bushel harvested from the mouth of a boat harbor.

According to Capital Regional District, a Canadian governmental sustainability organization, sea lettuce is a valuable food source to numerous creatures. Grazing sea animals, including snails, amphipods and sea urchins, all rely on seaweeds like Ulva lactuca to provide nutrients. Too much sea lettuce can inhibit the growth of other seaweeds, especially when large, floating blooms block sunlight from reaching other oceanic plants below the surface.

As sea lettuce decomposes, it releases hydrogen sulfide, a chemical compound which smells like rotten eggs. The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration says this toxic gas can be harmful to humans and animals alike, and can even be deadly in high amounts.

When foraging for anything, it’s important to take only as much as you need. Harvesting sea lettuce is no different. However, foraging for sea lettuce can help reduce its decomposition and subsequent toxic contamination.

It’s important to verify the safety of any body of water you plan on foraging in. You can do so by checking local biotoxin warnings. During hotter months, steer clear of consuming coastal collections due to potential red tide contamination.

You don’t need a fishing license to recreationally collect seaweed in California. The daily limit is 10 pounds of wet seaweed, and you must carry a scale with you to ensure you’re within regulation standards.

To collect sea lettuce, one needs a sharp knife and a bucket. Only harvest bushels that are large enough to leave some behind after collecting. Be sure to leave a good amount to ensure you don’t affect the holdfast of a sea lettuce head so the algae can grow back next time.

Before heading out to the coast to collect sea lettuce, check local regulations and make sure you aren’t harvesting on protected land.

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