Thanks To Seaweed, A Family In Rural Newfoundland Supports Community Through Pandemic

The marine plant has kept them afloat throughout the months.

Mornings spent watching icebergs sail by. Visits from singing whales. Sitting in boats, the salty ocean breeze running through hair as fish bob below. These are all everyday occurrences in the life of the Howells.

Courtney Howell, 42, originally hails from Louisiana, and she moved to Newfoundland not long after marrying her husband Terrance, now 49, a Newfoundlander. They raise their daughter Phoenix, 11, in the outport community of Grates Cove.

“Phoenix caught a shark yesterday,” Courtney said, speaking from her home on the rugged Atlantic Coast. “She was reeling cod in and a shark bigger than her got in instead.”

Phoenix, like many Canadian children her age, enjoys a good “Friends” marathon on Netflix and snuggling up with her cats. But she’s also quite the adventurer. When she’s not rock climbing or accidentally fishing sharks, Phoenix helps out with the family business.

August is normally a busy season for the Howells as tourists flock to Grates Cove. The community sits at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, a two-hour drive from St. John’s.

But the Howells’ pair of vacation homes, which they run alongside an arts centre and restaurant at Grates Cove Studios, haven’t seen the same influx of out-of-towners as they would get any other year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic making Atlantic tourism a hard sell, Courtney told HuffPost Canada that the survival of their small family business was uncertain. Initially, they didn’t know how they’d weather the economic downturn that began back in March. But it turned out, the answer to their financial worries lay (literally) at their feet.

Seaweed.

It’s everywhere on the shores of Grate Cove, particularly after a big storm, and it is the main ingredient in the family’s skincare line 7 Fathoms, a side business that they’ve turned all their attentions to this year, as stay-home directives have meant tourism itself has taken a vacation of sorts.

Phoenix and her parents have been spending more time together than ever this summer, zipping up their wetsuits and going out to harvest seaweed for the marine-mineral-rich skin lotion they sell internationally by mail order.

Watch the video below to see the ocean views the family enjoys time together on the job.

Phoenix adores floating, which she does often when she's playing in the water.
Phoenix adores floating, which she does often when she's playing in the water.

Foraging for seaweed makes for pandemic family bonding

“I got jellyfish!” Phoenix exclaimed in one family video of a seaweed-foraging trip, as she cups the tiny creature in her hands. “Is that sand?” she asked in another, head craning to see a unique formation.

Her shock of red hair, squeals of excitement and unending curiosity about Newfoundland’s wildlife make the Howells’ boat trips lively. Of course Phoenix stays close to her parents, when they’re out foraging on the frigid Atlantic waters — “You could go out too far, if the tide is too strong,” she recited, when asked about safety rules she follows — but she holds her own as a hardworking member of their tiny oarweed harvesting team.

Oarweed, or laminaria digitata, is a type of seaweed that’s high in antioxidants, making it a popular ingredient in anti-aging products. Since the family came across the marine plant during a beach stroll five years ago and discovered that handling it helped clear up Terrance’s skin issues — blisters from woodworking and eczema it has taken a starring role in a lotion they began making in-house to sell, initially, to the occasional curious visitor.

The seaweed business was meant to be a side-hustle. Courtney said that 80 per cent of her and Terrance’s time pre-pandemic was spent just keeping up with the constant stream of tourists to their restaurant and bed and breakfast. Once COVID-19 restrictions reached their rocky shores and Phoenix’s schooling went remote, pivoting to a focus on the seaweed venture made the most sense in terms of safety and making a living.

Many Canadians have worked from home for months, only WFH looked very different for this small crew. It means spending time together in the water, right on their doorstep.

As they explore the coastline by their home and look for the telltale tangles, the family members are deeply attuned to the habitat around them. Their toil is broken up by leisurely swims and jumping off wharfs, instead of, coffee breaks and Zoom calls.

“You become very aware of the tide, the wind, the temperature. Immersing yourself in the ocean water then calms many of these sensory experiences,” Courtney said. “Light becomes diffused. Hearing becomes muffled... we become very focused on moving with the tide and the feeling of gliding through the seaweed.”

Foraging sustainably takes a lot of planning, requiring careful navigation of slippery rocks where seaweed tends to collect.
Foraging sustainably takes a lot of planning, requiring careful navigation of slippery rocks where seaweed tends to collect.

“For Newfoundlanders, being on the water has been a way of life for 500 years,” Terrance remarked.“But going into the water is the last thing on people’s minds. It kind of brings a whole new world to you.”

As someone from a long lineage of Newfoundlanders, Terrance said he grew up with a “healthy fear” of the Atlantic’s depths.

“I still have that healthy fear, but now I must literally work with it. I feel like my respect for the ocean is even greater because I have to work with the ocean— just me and the ocean.”

When the family business becomes a community venture

With a provincial wage subsidy, the Howells were able to hire three neighbours to help sustainably harvest and process the marine plant. Hiring local people is important for the couple, as a form of support for their rural community of less than 130 residents. Helping others during times of need is an important family value: Courtney and Terrance, who met as teachers in South Korea, spent months doing Hurricane Katrina relief together in Howell’s home state of Louisiana, at the start of their married life.

But it’s also part of the informal life lesson they hope Phoenix absorbs as she grows up: How does someone live mindfully, in every sense of that word? Mindful of nature and the environment and of the connections they have with people around them?

“It’s important to us that we hand harvest the seaweed sustainably and build up our community, these are the kinds of conversations we have with her: ‘It matters that you include all your friends when you do something. It’s important not to waste and to honour the people who support you,’” explained Courtney.

The Howell family with laminaria digitata, the main ingredient in their skincare line 7 Fathoms.
The Howell family with laminaria digitata, the main ingredient in their skincare line 7 Fathoms.

That spirit of mutual aid is something that’s alive and well in their region, as the tourism industry has turned inward for support, for the last two months, since the Atlantic provinces succeeded in flattening the curve.

Atlantic Canadian governments have strongly encouraged people in the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador to take “staycations” within the cross-provincial travel bubble. That meant that after keeping the restaurant and accommodation services closed, earlier this year, the Howells were finally able to pick up again when a growing number of Grates Cove visitors from nearby areas, people who may never have thought to explore their own backyards before, began trickling in.

Nonetheless, the Howells have kept their business pivot to the seaweed skincare line, but since August they have once more been able to welcome guests who follow safety protocol. Foraging has also inspired an upcoming service the Howells are excited to offer: boat rides for visitors to areas the family has stumbled across during their harvests.

And throughout all this, having Phoenix fully engaged in the family business has in turn reminded her parents of the importance of spending lots of time together, doing the things they care about, and enjoying the natural goodness around them.

“I don’t know if Phoenix realizes this, but we’ll finish our workday … Terrance and I are both guilty of hibernating, and of course there are big emotions to deal with... and Phoenix will be the one to say, ‘Let’s go swimming in the pond, let’s go on a boat ride,’” Courtney said. “As soon as we’re out there, we’ll feel better. And she is a huge part of that.”

All of this has helped the proud mom realize what’s worth holding onto once times are less uncertain.

“To be together and have quality time, for Phoenix to be out in the ocean and just enjoy our time ... is something I’m going to be a lot more protective of after the pandemic,” she said.

“It’s a gift.”

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