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Taking the pulse of the dulse harvest in Bay of Fundy

The world’s growing health food craze is coming ashore on an island in the Bay of Fundy. Dulse grows in great quantities on the rocks near the low-tide mark on Grand Manan’s western shore, and all you need is a dory — and a boatload of bravery.
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“That 12-year-old made $1,500 last week,” declared Gerry Flagg.

Flagg puffed an e-cigarette on a recent Monday evening as families spread dulse to dry on his Grand Manan property. In the shed behind the old wooden chair on which he perched, women weighed the big bundles and tallied up what was owed to whom.

“We’re not looking for new markets because we can’t fill the markets we have now,” said Flagg, a middleman purchaser of various seaweeds.

While Zack Clinch is actually 13, he and his father, Greg, have had a good season picking dulse on the rocky shores of Grand Manan and selling it to Flagg for $6 a pound. As did the other families arriving in expensive four-wheel-drive pickups loaded with burlap sacks.

The world’s growing health food craze is coming ashore on an island in the Bay of Fundy.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 2016 report, world seaweed production has grown at eight per cent annually for the past decade and now stands at 27.3 million tonnes. The vast majority of that is cultivated. 

Wild collection sea vegetables, like the dulse collected on Grand Manan, in Ireland and Scotland is at or near its peak capacity and can’t supply the growing health food markets.

Eaten as a chewy snack from a bag or ground up and used as a food additive, dulse is high in iron and contains a wide array of micro-nutrients. Long popular as a snack in Atlantic Canada, it has become common in health food stores across the United States. Just across the border, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables sells a pound of whole leaf dulse for US $31.

One morning last week, Doug Clinch (brother of Greg) and Andrew Greene were the first of a dozen crews to push their five-metre-long wooden dory into the water of Dark Harbour.

The 25-horsepower outboard sent them scudding toward the 10-metre-high wall of stones that almost completely encircles the only harbour on the island’s western side, leaving only a cut of rapids as an entrance. 

To avoid the nearly impassable entrance, they hook the dory to a winch atop the seawall. The boat is dragged up the stones, unhooked and slid down the other side by Greene and Clinch into the open water.

“Any other fishery, and you’re pretty well fishing a company licence,” said Greene.

With a lobster boat, gear and licence in the Bay of Fundy easily costing over $1 million, many are tied up in backroom agreements with processors.

Licences aren’t required by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to pick the dulse that grows in great quantities on the rocks near the low-tide mark on Grand Manan’s western shore. So you need a dory that costs around $5,000 and an outboard motor that runs around $4,000 new.

The relatively low buy-in cost makes the fishery one of very few in Canada that is self-regulated.

“We’re self-employed, so we don’t want someone telling us when and where to go,” said Greene.

The 6.5-metre dory is provided by Flagg under the condition that Clinch sells him his dulse. Greene, who rides forward, meanwhile, sells his to whichever of the handful of buyers on the island he wants. Sometimes he’ll take a load to the mainland himself and sell it for $12 a pound.

An average morning sees them pick about 50 pounds off the rocks.

Despite there being money in it, nobody comes over from the economically troubled mainland of New Brunswick to pick dulse.

“You stay out on the western side of the island for one whole season and you’ll scare yourself more than once,” said Greene.

“Once is enough for some people.”

As a child, Clinch would run a dory down through the rapids draining out of Dark Harbour for kicks. Like Newfoundland’s outport children tallying across rotting spring harbour ice, it was training for the work to come.

For the Newfoundlanders, it was the seal hunt; on Grand Manan, it was to learn to work small wooden boats among the rocks in tandem with the Bay of Fundy’s immense tides.

This unique skill set, only won through hard experience, and the fierce protection by islanders of their fisheries, means the 75 dories fishing dulse around Grand Manan all have local crews.

“I’ve been underneath the dory waiting for the next swell to take it off of me,” said Greene.

Self-regulation is intensely personal — in his 20s, Clinch would head out in rougher weather just for the thrill of it.

“But I’ve got three children now — if it weren’t for them, I’d probably be dead,” he said.

On this day, the Bay of Fundy greeted the pair with a gentle swell and they spotted whales and bald eagles as they made the 10-kilometre steam to their picking grounds. Clinch worked the dory between boulders just below the retreating water’s surface and nudged up on the stone beach.

Waiting for the tide to drop and expose their dulse, they each smoke a cigarette in the shadow of the 100-metre-high cliffs.

A landslide at the next beach over disturbed their calm, sending large boulders and spruce trees tumbling down like matchsticks.

“We were working there yesterday,” says Clinch, looking suddenly pensive in the direction of the growing dust cloud.

“All those big rocks down around us here used to be way up there,” said Greene.

Ancient lava flows sent up the largely uninhabited cold shoulder that Grand Manan offers to the Gulf of Maine. Like everything in the Bay of Fundy, danger and opportunity walk hand in hand.

The dulse exposed by the retreating tide is protected from the withering morning rays of the sun’s easterly rise by the cliffs that also created the boulder-strewn beach upon which it grows.

Grand Manan’s wealth has always been a gift of the great bay’s unique geography.

Nova Scotia reaches like an arm out from the North American mainland around and south into the Atlantic, at once forming the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.

The millions of gallons of seawater sucked by the moon’s influence through the Gulf into the narrowing Bay shapes and feeds the latter’s rich ecology. Twice daily, the tides rush past Grand Manan toward the broad salt marshes of the Minas Basin. On their diurnal retreat, they claw away the rotting remnants of marsh spartina grasses to feed a web of plankton and phytoplankton species that are consumed up the food chain, ending in the gaping maws of grey whales and on the decks of Cape Islanders.

It’s on the decks of these lobster boats that the real wealth of the island comes ashore. Grand Manan has 144 lobster licences that fish both in the Bay and out in the Gulf of Maine. Global warming has hurt many species, but has been a boon for the bottom-feeding crustacean. Landings to the 144 lobster licences fished from Grand Manan have nearly tripled over the past decade. Prices have gone back up as the American economy slowly rebounds from the 2008 financial crisis and a crew member can make over $100,000 during the season that runs from November until April.

That puts Clinch and Greene low on the island’s economic food chain.

“I try not to,” said Greene, 40, of spending February hauling traps onto a pitching deck in the Gulf of Maine.

“When I’m lobster fishing, I’m not happy when I come home. When one member of the family isn’t happy, it brings everyone down. As it is, we have a warm home and a cold fridge and everyone is happy.”

Greene went to the mainland as a young man and did three years of a computer science degree in Fredericton. He made a decision that disappointed his mother at the time.

He came home to fish.

He has a wife, a five-year-old daughter and an old truck.

When he finishes dulsing in October, he heads out with a shovel and a bucket to dig clams through the winter.

For those willing to work hard, the clams are a social safety net on the island.

 “Ever hear the saying ‘colder than a clam digger’s ass’?,” said Greene. 

“But if someone needs 30 bucks for a pack of smokes or some food, they can go dig some clams.”

The conversation ends once the tide has drawn out far enough to leave their dory high on the beach to expose the dulse. For the next two hours, they walk ape-like among the slippery stones, tearing off the long fronds of red seaweed with care to leave the roots still attached so it can regrow. Courtesy dictates that they sweep down between each boulder, cleaning a small section of beach thoroughly instead of just taking the easily accessible dulse for a quicker, larger load.

During these high months of summer, the dulse grows up to three centimetres a day and so a week after a beach is picked it can be revisited again.

After two hours of picking, the tide has turned and comes near the narrow stern of their dory. They load up all they have brought and carefully slide it back into the swell, hop aboard and back out through the rocks.

Steaming back along the shore, dories carrying crews they have known their entire lives are pushing off and fall in behind them.

By the early afternoon, Clinch and a handful of other pickers are spreading the dulse with their families under Flagg’s watchful eye.

The 59-year-old spent the first six years of his life in a five- by six-metre cabin on Dark Harbour’s seawall. Winter storms would howl over the rocks, barely slowing to whip through the planked walls of his home.

He has the air of a man who knows how far he’s come and that if his will were the equal of the Bay upon which he spent nearly four decades fishing lobster, scallop and herring, then it’s the equal of anyone else’s on the island.

“Over the last 30 years, there’s been several recessions, but this island has never felt them, or never felt them that hard,” said Flagg, who just celebrated the birth of his first great-grandchild.

“It’s comforting to know that there is a future here.”



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