There are only two months a year, July and August, when the Arctic ice melts from Ungava Bay near the northern Quebec community of Kangirsuk, population 500. The temperature can hit 25° C in the afternoon and the water near shore can be as warm as a bath. That’s when Peter Annahatak, 51, pulls on his yellow rubber boots and gloves, jeans, and windbreaker, and heads out at low tide with a small curved knife and a bucket.
Under the clear skies of the short summer season, it will take Annahatak and the crew about three hours to scrape the brown fucus algae gently off the rocks just below the surface. Then they will place the soaking wet seaweed in anchored nets that float to the surface as the tide comes in. Another group of workers will pick up the algae—as much as two tonnes at a time—in a canoe and bring it to shore, where it will be washed in sea water and dried at low temperature to preserve as many nutrients as possible.
This fan-shaped fucus species, which the Inuit call qanik, is set to show up on dinner plates this spring as Nunavik Biosciences launches a line of seaweed seasoning spices, part of its mandate to boost economic development in this isolated subarctic town about 230 km north of Kuujjuak, the largest community in Nunavik (the northern third of Quebec). It won’t be the first time Canadians eat seaweed. Dulse is a popular salty snack in the Maritimes, and most of us have tried nori wrapped around a sushi roll or in a bowl of miso soup. And in B.C., local varieties are hand-picked and sold to high-end restaurants like Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island.
Annahatak, a hunter who loves wild meat and fish, says locals have been eating qiquaq, another seaweed from the bay, for years. “You can cook it or eat it raw. And I know some people here use it for making sushi for their own purposes,” he says. The flavour is similar to qanik, but its texture is softer. Nunavik Bioscienes chose to work with qanik because it is easier to harvest. At the end of the summer, the dried and crumbled seaweed is shipped to Montreal by boat or plane—there are no roads in Kangirsuk—where it is blended with other spices and sold in three varieties: one for salad, one for fish, and one for red meat. Each is packaged in a slick glass container with a ceramic grinder.
The flavour is like a gentle slap of the sea on your food. The seaweed gives food a subtle fishy taste and a little kick of salt. Joshua Bishop, owner of Ottawa’s sustainable seafood restaurant Whalesbone, tried the fish spice on some white Pacific cod. “It was citrusy and a little salty; very interesting,” he said. The price tag is hefty: $30 for 92 grams, but Mark Allard, president of Nunavik Biosciences, explains the cost of maintaining a sustainable industry so far north—where only two ships sail each year and a flight to Montreal is over $2,000—is high. “We know this will be more of a product for the home chef,” mostly to be sold in specialty stores, he says.
Getting into the food industry is part of Allard’s plan to make the Ungava Bay seaweed more available, and he hopes to develop more products. The company has so far focused on making cosmetics—Ungava, a high-end line of moisturizing creams and anti-aging concoctions, uses the same seaweed as the spices—but “we had so much of the stuff,” he says, “we wanted other ways to use it.”
What Allard really wants is to create more jobs in Kangirsuk and other Inuit communities. Nunavik Biosciences is owned by the Makivik Corporation, the body in charge of administering Nunavik’s funds since 1975, when the James Bay and northern Quebec land settlement agreement was signed. His mandate is to improve the livelihoods of Inuit through economic development. Annahatak hopes Canadians will embrace the seaweed, because its harvest employs between 20 and 30 people each summer. In the seven years he’s been hired to help, he has seen some of Kangirsuk’s young people get their first jobs. “We love the seaweed and we love the jobs,” he says. “We’d like to keep on doing it.”