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The island where seaweed is king

Crispy, tasty seaweed is big money on Grand Manan, N.B. But what about climate change?

A man on a seaweed-covered rocky beach holds a large black plastic bucket
Elton Greene, 63, has been dulsing for 50 years on Grand Manan, an island community in southwestern New Brunswick. Julia Wright/CBC

To be a good “dulser” — someone who harvests edible seaweed on Grand Manan, an island off southwestern New Brunswick — you need two things.

“My dad used to say, a strong back and a weak mind,” says lifelong island resident Elton Greene, 63, laughing.

Greene knows a thing or two about the “strong back” part.

​​In the golden light of a September sunset, he hauls his dory down to Dark Harbour, on Grand Manan’s western coast. Starting up the motor of the little boat, he crosses Dark Harbour Pond, a naturally-occurring body of water shielded from the Grand Manan channel by a towering seawall of loose stones.

He hauls his boat over the rocks and clambers down to the shore in search of the prize.

It’s late in the season. The spot he’s eyeing has been “picked quite hard within the last couple of weeks — like picked, and then picked again, and so it hasn’t had a chance to grow back much here,” he said.

A middle-aged man harvests seaweed from a rocky shore
Rubber boots with a good tread are essential gear in the dulsing business. Late in the season, the rocks are picked clean — but come spring, the perennial seaweed replenishes itself again. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Still, there’s enough rubbery, purple fronds of Palmaria palmata to shove by the fistful into a bucket.

It’s cold, wet work, which Greene does bare-handed, bent double, navigating the slippery rocks in rubber boots.

When the picking is done, there’s more heavy lifting when the seaweed gets processed through a wooden machine, called a shaker, and laid out by hand to dry in the sun.

He’s been dulsing for 50 years, he said, “and not much longer.”

A part of Grand Manan's identity

Dulsing is part of life on Grand Manan. Along with lobster, scallops, and salmon farming, it’s a way to make a living on the water.

A good picker can get as many as 70 pounds, or almost 32 kilograms, a day. At $8.50 a pound, it adds up.

The work, though, is seasonal: only from June until mid-September.

“It’s hard work, or most people think it’s hard work, but actually, most people that do it, love it,” Greene said. “You’re your own boss. You do it on your own time.”

A man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a ball cap steers a small motorboat on the water
Greene, 63, grew up on Grand Manan and has been harvesting dulse for 50 years 'and not much longer,' he said. (Julia Wright/CBC)
A man in a small boat presents his back tothe camera at the fore of a small boat
Greene is one of many Grand Mananers who make their living on the water. (Julia Wright/CBC)

As much as Greene loves picking it, some Atlantic Canadians love to eat it. It can be munched like chips, added to chowders or fried up like bacon to in a sandwich. It gets shipped worldwide to restaurants and health food stores.

In a good year, as much as a million pounds of wet-weight dulse gets picked on the island.

Yet many people outside of Eastern Canada have no idea what dulse is, Greene said. Many adults who try it for the first time don’t like the taste.

“You have to grow up with it, you know?” Greene said.

Greene certainly did. When he was a kid growing up in the 1950s and Sixties, his whole family — “cats and dogs and everything” — would leave their home in Castalia, and move to a camp in Dark Harbour and stay there all season, sometimes spying minke whales as they worked.

In those days, they’d dry the seaweed on the Dark Harbour sea wall, and there would be buyers right there ready to take it.

“You didn’t have to go home for anything,” Greene said.

Changing times, changing conditions

Those days are long gone.

There are fewer buyers now. People have their own spreading grounds. Many of the camps on the sea wall have fallen into disrepair.

But that isn’t the only thing that’s changing.

Grand Manan Island is located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, with the Gulf of Maine to the west.

Scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute say that temperatures in the gulf averaged 12.3 C in 2021, which is more than two degrees above the average and tops the previous record set back in 2012.

An aerial view of Grand Manan shows a thin strip of land surrounded on either side by water
The first question tourists ask, Greene said, is whether the sea wall that contains the Dark Harbour Pond is natural, or man-made. Made by the tides pushing against the loose stones, it's been there 'as long as anyone can remember,' he said. The camps on the seawall have historically been used by dulsers, although many of them have fallen into disrepair.
A speedboat travels across a bdy of water, leaving a frothy wake in its path
Crossing over the Dark Harbour Pond takes about 10 minutes by boat: then, seaweed harvesters need to navigate their way down the rocky beach to find the prime picking grounds.
An aerial view of Dark Harbour Pond
Late in the season at the end of September, Greene is one of just a handful of dulsers on the beach. The peak of the season — when the best dulse is available on Grand Manan — is in July and August.
A series of small, colourful boats sits on a rocky beach
Colourful boats lined up on the beach. These days, most dulsers 'have their own gear,' said Sandy Flagg. 'Years ago, dad had three different dories and he let three different people use them and the outboards. But they always come back broke. And dad told me, he said, ‘if you ever get into this racket, don't buy dories and give them away because you're losing money on it.'"
images expandDark Harbour Pond, made by the tides pushing against loose stones, has been a part of Grand Manan 'as long as anyone can remember,' says Greene.

Temperatures in the Bay of Fundy, too, are increasing “very rapidly — about a degree Celsius per decade over the past 40 years, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But it is,” said professor and research chair Gary Saunders, who studies the biodiversity and biogeography of seaweed at the University of New Brunswick.

Palmaria palmata likes low temperatures, with an optimum between 6 and 15 C, meaning it does well in northern temperate and arctic waters.

But what some people forget, Saunders said, is that it also needs a certain temperature range to reproduce — somewhere between 5 and 7 C.

“At some point, there will be a critical temperature range where they won’t reproduce, or grow well. That is not necessarily known for the local population,” Saunders said.

WATCH | Join New Brunswick dulser Elton Greene as he harvests his goods:

He said more research is needed — including studying the level of harvest that will be sustainable in the long term.

“We aren’t going to lose the seaweed — we’re going to see a shift in the seaweed. You’ll slowly lose the colder, subarctic, colder water tolerant species, and see them replaced by warmer water tolerant species.

“Which we’re already starting to see. There’s no question about that.”

The plentiful, large fronds of dulse that have made Dark Harbour so famous might not be as easy to find in the future, Saunders said.

'Dulse was the only thing for years and years and years'

Just a 10-minute drive down the winding, steep road from Dark Harbour, the storefront of Roland’s Sea Vegetables is a cheerful, turquoise and white shed decorated with hand-lettered signs advertising dulse, nori, kombu and Irish moss.

Selling marine plants other than dulse is relatively recent development on Grand Manan, said owner Sandy Flagg.

His father, Roland, was a dulse buyer before him for 32 years. Sandy and his wife, Mary, took over the business 21 years ago.

“Dulse was the only thing for years and years and years,’ said Flagg, who’s been buying dulse from Elton Greene since 1987. “I know when I was a kid if we went dulsing we’d walk all over the nori and the rockweed to get to the dulse. Now, we’re picking that on the way.”

The demand, he says, is unbelievable. “I can’t even get enough of it,” he said. Some buyers, he says, tell him simply, “get me all you can get.’”

A man wearing a pink T-shirt sits on a chair in a large storeroom
Sandy Flagg buys, packages, and sells dulse at Roland's Sea Vegetables, which belonged to his father before him. 'Keeps me off the lobster boats,' he quipped.
Home-made signage welcomes tourists from all over the world. 'Please serve yourself if nobody is here,' reads a piece of paper on the door.
Roland's Sea Vegetables sells many products, although until recently the mainstay was simply dulse.
Sandy Flagg and his wife, Mary, package dulse for sale. The business 'gives us something to do,' Flagg said. 'If I wasn't doing that, I’d been doing something else.'
images expandSandy Flagg buys, packages, and sells dulse at Roland's Sea Vegetables, which belonged to his father before him.

But earlier in the spring of 2022, “the dulse was really scarce,” said Flagg. “Through the winter we had these storms — it rolls the rocks upside down, and it takes a while for it to regrow.”

Flagg knows from experience something that scientists confirm: namely, that increased storm activity in Atlantic Canada could pose a problem for dulse, according to biologist David Garbary, who studies the biology of seaweeds at St. Francis Xavier University.

A perennial, dulse survives year to year because of the parts that hang on to the rocks, said Garbary.

“In an extreme storm, it’s possible that the whole beach could be turned over: the rocks would be rolling around, and that could destroy an entire site,” he said.

Two side-by-side images show a hand holding a bucket of wet seaweed, as well as a large pile of purple, dried seaweed
Fresh seaweed is on the left. Dried, crispy dulse is on the right. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Storms are bad news for buyers like Flagg. “We ran out a couple of different times earlier in the spring before it started coming in good. I don’t like not having anything to sell,” Flagg said.

But there have always been dulse shortages, Greene says. He isn’t so sure you can chalk up a bad month, or even a bad season, to climate change.

“Some years are good and some are bad,” he said. “A lot of guys, as soon as they see it’s not growing well, they blame it on climate change immediately. But I’ve seen for years: some summers, there’s not much dulse. But maybe the climate change will affect it in time.”

A need to move quickly

Storms aren’t the only weather-related risk for dulsers. Fast-moving rain showers are also a problem, especially when they’re hard to predict.

“​​Once it’s picked, you’ve got a two or three day window before it spoils,” Flagg said. “If you don’t get it spread out and at least three-quarters dried, it’ll rot on you,” Flagg said. “It’s risky, taking a chance on picking it and getting it dry.”

Fortunately, he said, “when the rain comes, everybody knows everybody, and everybody pitches in and if somebody’s in trouble,” Flagg said. “Same as if a boat broke down — you don’t leave them behind.”

Whatever the weather, or the climate change, brings to the island, Flagg expects Grand Mananers will adapt, just as they have to other changes in the island’s fortunes.

“If the dulse keeps up growing at least as well as it has been, it’ll supply a lot of people with work. If it doesn’t, the people will have to go find something else to do,” he said.

A man stands in thigh-deep water next to a small blue boat
Greene takes his dory across Dark Harbour Pond, which is fed with fresh water from the surrounding hundred-metre cliffs and salt water from the ocean. (Julia Wright/CBC)

But Flagg hopes it won’t come to that.

“Dad, he worked so hard to get what we have, I’d like to keep it going as much as possible,” Flagg said. “Hopefully nothing will happen for the young ones coming, be something for them to do.”

Still, after 50 years each in the business, industry veterans like Flagg and Greene will soon be leaving whatever challenges the future brings for the next generation to sort out.

“My soul, I won’t be here 20 years from now,” Flagg said.

“I might be around, but I won’t be doing this.”

A man hunches over small piles of seaweed leaves that he spreads out over the ground
Spreading out the dulse is 'the hardest part of it, most people find,' says Greene. The wet product has to be flipped halfway through drying, which is accomplished by rolling it up on a long pole, then unrolling it again. The whole thing can easily be spoiled by an unexpected shower of rain. (Julia Wright/CBC)
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