Economic Botany

, Volume 68, Issue 1, pp 30-43

First online:

Contemporary Gathering Practice and Antioxidant Benefit of Wild Seaweeds in Hawai’i

  • Georgia M. HartAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Email author 
  • , Tamara TicktinAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
  • , Dovi KelmanAffiliated withDaniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, University of Hawai’i at Hilo
  • , Anthony D. WrightAffiliated withDaniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, University of Hawai’i at Hilo
  • , Nicole TabanderaAffiliated withDaniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, University of Hawai’i at Hilo

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Contemporary Gathering Practice and Antioxidant Benefit of Wild Seaweeds in Hawaii. Wild-gathered seaweeds (limu) are a prominent component of Native Hawaiian diet and culture, but are understudied for their nutritional benefits and contemporary cultural use. This study uses a combination of ethnographic, pharmacological, and ecological approaches to document contemporary levels of wild seaweed gathering and consumption, and it explores the impact of cultivation and eutrophication on the disease-preventive benefits wild seaweeds may provide. Levels of gathering and consumption of seaweed were assessed with surveys of high school students and interviews with adult limu gatherers on O’ahu island, Hawai’i. Antioxidant activity was assessed with laboratory-based assays. Almost all students surveyed reported consuming cultivated seaweeds, one-third reported having consumed wild seaweeds, and one-fifth had gathered them, confirming that gathering practice and traditional diet have persisted in Hawai’i despite major social and environmental change. Wild gathering was three times as high and consumption 60% more prevalent among Native Hawaiians compared to non-Hawaiian students. Further, students with a parent who gathered limu were six times more likely to have gathered limu themselves, asserting the importance of within-family transmission to cultural continuity. A larger proportion of male than female Hawaiian students reported gathering wild seaweeds, indicating a cultural shift from pre-Contact Hawai’i, when women were the predominant gatherers and consumers of limu. The wild seaweeds assessed demonstrated higher levels of antioxidant activity than did cultivated seaweeds. Eutrophication was correlated with a decline in antioxidant activity, indicating that changing ocean conditions may alter the nutritional quality of this traditional food. Today, nearly all students are receiving some antioxidant benefits from seaweed, with Native Hawaiian youth from families that gather seaweed most likely to receive this health benefit. Conservation and restoration of near-shore environments to promote native edible seaweeds in pollution-free areas would provide greater opportunities for Native Hawaiian gathering practice and would support Native Hawaiian health.

Key Words

Limu macroalgae traditional knowledge Native Hawaiian cultivation ethnobotany eutrophication nutrition