On Coasts

IN

Turns out, coasts are not only relevant to us islanders, but to all humanity.  Coasts are key to our shared evolutionary past, natural biodiversity and flavour hotspots in the here and now, and indicators of what impact our activities are having for the future. 

Here we are, Islay.  An island of 239 and a quarter square miles, 14 miles off the Scottish mainland. We have Ardnamurchan point to the north, N Ireland to the south west, across the shipping lanes of the “North Channel” into the Clyde. The next stop to the West of us is St John’s Newfoundland nearly 2000 miles away. We have a maritime climate (lots of rain!); the Atlantic and its Gulf Stream current basically dictates our weather, meaning it’s never quite as cold in Islay as it is in places on the same latitude, like Labrador in Canada or Novosibirsk, Russia. There are many shipwrecks in our waters, telling our place in centuries of history – the Spanish Armada, Jacobean rebellion, Trans-Atlantic emigrations and two World Wars. The sea made Islay relatively more accessible and more politically important in the past. For the stone-age hunter gatherers, for saints in 9th century coracles, for everyone and their army until the 18th century when roads were improved, sea travel was faster and easier than travel over land. 

The next stop to the West of us is St John’s Newfoundland

Consider a map of the whole world, at night, from a satellite. Lights pick out the coasts. 8/10 of the largest cities in the world are coastal cities – Tokyo, Mumbai, Lagos, Shanghai, New York, LA – and the population density in coastal areas is predicted to rise over the foreseeable future, as our population grows.

Coasts have been kind to us. Transport, trade, and money flows in and out of ports. Another level of exchange is taking place between fresh and salt waters. Places like estuaries and mangroves are rich in nutrients; all sorts of species revel in these, going up the food chain. Coasts are naturally rich in biodiversity. It’s the ultimate “edge effect”, between land and sea.

Agonisingly, perhaps unsurprisingly, a consequence of the intense human habitation in these areas and the flow of rivers out to the sea, is that there is a darker version of the familiar map.

Dense populations, intense agriculture. Marine life suffers.

Created by NASA way back in 2008, this map shows a growing number of dead zones in our oceans.

Put simplistically, dead zones are caused by bacteria using up oxygen, for instance as they break down algal blooms. Algal blooms are caused by sewage and fertilisers that we use in intensive agriculture flushing out into the sea. Bacteria multiply in response, and the ocean becomes “hypoxic” – with insufficient oxygen to support marine life. You don’t have to scratch the surface of google very hard to reveal alarming photos of the effects of this. See The Guardian environment >  On top of the coastal de-oxygenation, the ocean generally holds less oxygen as its temperature warms.

It seems that before we started to disregard and undermine the richness of a healthy ocean, however, it may have saved our ancestors from extinction. By reading fossils, and looking into our genes,  scientists can tell that a severe climate crisis between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago caused human populations to crash. The southern coast of Africa remained a habitable region. Its inter-tidal protein-rich shellfish and edible plants offered foraging opportunities, its caves offered shelter, and its proximity to the diversity of the fynbos, specifically the bulb species, made it “a coastal cornucopia” according to an article of 2012 in Scientific American. The theory is that we are all descended somehow from those resourceful early people who capitalised on the natural resources of that coastline.

“If I am looking for large quantities of interesting edible plants it is to the seashore that I am invariably drawn.” John Wright

As a slight aside, when this Paleoanthropology research was presented in a South African symposium in 2014, they had an opening dinner full of wild foods. And who should cater that, but Roushanna Gray, a writer for this website, and a good friend of the Botanist’s who is featured in our Wild A State of Mind mini-series? You can read her blog and see a photo diary of the Symposium’s  “Incredible edible adventure” here >.

Coasts are still a great place to forage. John Wright, in the River Cottage Handbook, attests, “If I am looking for large quantities of interesting edible plants it is to the seashore that I am invariably drawn.” When the tide goes out, even on the shore just outside the distillery, delicious and nutritious seaweeds are there year-round for the taking, including pepper dulse, the flavourful “truffle of the sea”.

Pepper dulse growing by the distillery

For vegetables there are shore-growing wild brassicas, mustards and cresses. There’s an abundance of Goosefoot (orache) which is like a robust ready-salted spinach, related to the inland fat hen. Some other personal favourites are the wasabi-flavoured dark evergreen scurvy grass Cochlearia, the Sea Arrowgrass “coriander grass” Triglochin maritima that grows on Islay’s salt flats at the head of the loch, and sea sandwort Honckenya peploides – see below – which carpets the beaches with waxy, juicy, low-growing pagoda-shaped stalks that taste of saline cucumber. These last flavours are all great in martinis…

So let’s sit on a beach, sip a gin cocktail, and reflect on the point we’re at in human history. And the type of impact we want to have next.

Further Reading

Simple recipe for a seaweed martini here > 

More about Islay Shipwrecks here >

“When the Sea Saved Humanity”  Article by Paleoanthropologist Curtis W. Marean of Arizona State University in the Scientific American

 

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