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With Kelp, a First Nations Fisher Builds Community on the Clayoquot Sound

In pivoting away from overfished species towards kelp, Naas Foods co-founder Stevie Dennis is charting a course towards environmental and economic sustainability

Steve Dennis standing on his boat, hauling a long rope of kelp out of the water.
Stevie Dennis hauls kelp onto his boat.

“The love for the water started early,” Stevie Dennis says as he pulls his boat away from the Tofino harbor. Growing up in the Ahousaht First Nations community of Clayoquot Sound along the west coast of Vancouver Island, Dennis’s earliest memories all took place on the water. Raised by a family of fishers, he joined his parents on the boat every chance he could get. “Instead of sitting on my dad’s lap learning to drive a car, I was learning how to drive a boat.”

Dennis would watch his parents catch fish and either cook it on the spot or preserve it by drying, smoking, and jarring it. Whether at celebratory potlatches with as many as 1,000 people from surrounding First Nations communities or simply for dinner at home with his family, meals revolved around what was most accessible. Being surrounded by water, that was always fish.

Today, seafood is no longer so readily available. Dennis recalls swimming in rivers with as many as 10,000 salmon when he was a teenager. Now, at 30, Dennis is unlikely to see more than a few thousand. On a morning outing in November, there’s only one other boat of First Nations fishers on the water. But when they approach, one of the fishers, a friend of Dennis’s named Steve, holds up one of the 12 ducks he caught that morning; he hadn’t caught any fish. “The idea of harvesting is still strong here,” Dennis says. But with the fish population of Clayoquot Sound “beyond critical,” he is encouraging the harvesting of a much more readily available crop: kelp.

After doing some research on small-scale kelp harvesting, Dennis and his friend Jordan White were inspired to start their own seafood and seaweed company, Naas Foods, in 2021. Their small team harvests kelp from the shores of Clayoquot Sound and then processes it by hand into dried bull kelp, kelp flakes, and kelp seasoning in their small Tofino facility. Attached to the facility is a storefront where they sell their kelp products to locals and visitors. Many of their kelp sales are to local chefs who use the aquatic plant in creative ways, like at the restaurant Roar, where fish is wrapped in raw kelp and barbecued.

Selling kelp and seafood to chefs from the most esteemed restaurants and hotels in Tofino — like Pacific Sands Beach Resort, Wolf in the Fog, and Long Beach Lodge Resort — Dennis is helping the Indigenous community gain respect and recognition. While Dennis is not the first Indigenous fisher to supply seafood to Tofino restaurants and hotels, he estimates that his company is the first to operate at such a large scale. By selling upward of 400,000 fish per year, Naas Foods is able to support a greater breadth of Indigenous fishers. “These restaurants always ask where the fish was sourced, and I can say the name of the Indigenous fisherman it came from,” says Dennis. “A restaurant hears that and goes ‘wow.’ There’s this connection that it’s not coming from a farm or Asia, it’s coming from T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries.”

That connection is possible because T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries connects Dennis to 20 different fishers from five local First Nations communities, often prioritizing overlooked species like rockfish to reduce the pressure on keystone species like salmon. “When Naas Foods is buying fish seven days a week, we’re paying for those families to carry on. That’s clothes on the kid’s backs, food on the table, that’s schoolbooks,” says Dennis. “It’s the perfect example of what you’d want to see out of a small-scale fishery: Every fisherman is a small business.”

A photo of a small boat on the water, at a distance, with a view of the Tofino coastline.
A boat off the coast of Clayoquot Sound.

While a large part of Naas Foods’ business is selling seafood caught by local Indigenous fishers, it’s apparent from just a couple hours with Dennis that kelp is where his passion lies. As he heaves a giant rope of kelp onto the boat, he explains that the ocean plant, like trees on land, sequesters carbon. In fact, coastal ecosystems can sequester up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests. “Kelp can mitigate carbon emissions, temperature fluctuation, and shoreline erosion,” Dennis says. “It’s this amazing creature.”

While research into seaweed aquaculture as a climate solution is relatively new, Dennis says some Indigenous people have been harvesting kelp for thousands of years. Since it can grow to 100 feet in length, the plant would be dried out and used as a rope. Today, kelp is mainly known as a health food. As Dennis offers up a bite of freshly sliced kelp, he says this single thumbprint-sized bite might contain a person’s entire daily iodine intake. “Getting people familiar and comfortable eating kelp in North America, it’s getting easier,” says Dennis. “People are realizing this is a superfood.”

Beyond showcasing Naas Foods’ kelp at trade shows and selling the product to tourists visiting the shop in Tofino, Dennis is sharing his knowledge of the environmental and health benefits of kelp with the local First Nations of Clayoquot Sound. “There isn’t enough awareness in the Indigenous community about kelp,” says Dennis. “The problem is there has been a loss of knowledge-sharing.”

But for those who want to learn about kelp harvesting, Dennis is keen to share, in hopes that it can provide an alternative livelihood to fishing. “In order to make a living out here you have to be able to do a lot of different things, especially when it comes to working on the water,” says Dennis. From the process of growing kelp to the money needed to start his business, Dennis is an open book. And he’s already received interest. A Nation from north of Tofino took a week-long trip down to Naas Foods to learn about kelp from Dennis and several First Nation members have reached out asking for tips. “They’re seeing this as a great way to create jobs and revenue,” says Dennis. Working closely in the field, he’s also seen an increase in Indigenous people submitting tenure applications to the government to start growing kelp.

A portrait of Stevie Dennis smiling with of the Tofino coastline behind him.
Stevie Dennis

While Dennis thinks it will take time for the government to catch on, he believes Clayoquot Sound has the potential to grow a local economy around kelp. “There is a huge need for food security,” says Dennis. “Whether kelp is being used in cattle feed or the bioplastics industry or assisting in the growth of crops, there are a million different ways that it can be used and these products are going to be very necessary.” Looking to countries like South Korea that have, over the past two decades, developed a $650 million industry out of nori, another form of seaweed, Dennis envisions local kelp production expanding beyond Tofino to the entire British Columbia coastline. “There’s a lot of ocean, there’s a lot of room for growth,” he says.

In the meantime, Dennis is focused on providing an income for the local First Nations communities of Clayoquot Sound, particularly Indigenous youth. With an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent in 2021, young people from First Nations communities across Canada remain less likely to be employed than non-Indigenous youth. Systemic racism and more than a century of assimilationist policies continue to plague Indigenous youth who struggle with substance use, suicide, and mental health challenges. Being able to learn new skills and contribute to the community, then, can prove vital in expanding a young person’s options.

For Dennis’s teenage nephew and niece, working for Naas Foods five days a week over the last two seasons has given them a new sense of drive. “They realized you can work hard, and by the end of the week, you’ve accomplished something and learned all these new skills,” says Dennis. “All of a sudden, your little world back where you live has gotten this much bigger. It’s inspirational to see someone’s doors be opened like that.” Learning how to be on the water — fishing and harvesting kelp — helps preserve traditional knowledge of Dennis’s ancestors but also the environment too, by teaching young people about sustainability. “Without nature, we’re in trouble,” says Dennis. “Sustainability is the big push of our generation, we are trying to do better for the future.”

Anna Haines is a freelance journalist who uses her writing and photography to tell stories about travel, food, and culture.