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Hand-picked purple seaweed, the original beach food, is now a staple of health stores

At dawn, Elton Greene sets off to harvest dulse in Dark Harbour on New Brunswick's Grand Manan island. People here have spent generations harvesting the nutrient-rich purple seaweed.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

With a jolt the little blue dory jumps to life, and begins bouncing up the rocky beach with its burlap sacks full of wet seaweed as if propelled by an invisible force. Elton Greene, his weathered hand still on the pulley system’s rusty lever, stands atop the breakwater and smiles.

Years ago, when Mr. Greene was a child, families spent their whole summers out here in sun-bleached shacks on this finger of land that forms Dark Harbour. Back then, they laboured all day on the beach, out where the cliffs cast long shadows and the big tides roll back twice day to reveal rocks slick with some of the best dulse in the world.

“I still like coming here, but I’m getting too old to work that hard,” said Mr. Greene, 63.

People have been collecting, drying and eating dulse on Grand Manan since the era of the sailing schooners. Those wooden ships are long gone, and so are the sardine factories and smoked herring plants they used to supply. But dulse, the original beach food, endures.

This hand-picked, air-dried purple seaweed, long beloved as a salty snack by Grand Mananers, is now a staple with health food stores around Canada and the U.S. for its high concentrations of iron, vitamin C, potassium, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.

Natural sea salt lies around a pile of dried dulse ready for packaging.

But like many things connected to the sea, climate change is also affecting the dulse industry.

Although he buys 10 tonnes a summer, island wholesaler Sandy Flagg says he often can’t meet the demand from his buyers, in part because it’s getting harder to get a steady supply of dulse. Warming ocean waters are allowing more fungus to grow on the leaves, he said, and there seems to be more days of rain and fog in the summer that make drying dulse difficult. If dulse gets wet during the delicate drying process, it can ruin the crop, he explained.

“It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do this,” Mr. Flagg said.

The sea surrounding Grand Manan is warming rapidly – last fall temperatures in the Gulf of Maine were 2.3 C above the long-term average, the hottest increase on record. The Conservation Council of New Brunswick says that makes these waters some of the fastest-warming in the world, which is having major impacts on the marine ecosystem.

Mr. Greene says he isn’t sure how much longer he can do this work. But he concedes it’s physically easier than when he was a boy. Instead of dragging his boat by hand up and over the big seawall, they way he used to do, Mr. Greene uses an old scallop boat motor to haul it on a long rope attached to a series of pulleys. The only other tools he needs are rubber boots, his hands and his plastic-bottomed dory, which he calls Zoso II, a reference to his favourite band, Led Zeppelin.

Mr. Greene positions his dulsing boat at low tide. Grand Manan lies in the Gulf of Maine, whose waters have had record-setting increases in recorded temperatures recently.

Dulse for sale at Sandy Flagg’s store, Roland’s Sea Vegetables.
This customer is loading some bags to ship to her brother in Alberta.

Cut off from the rest of Canada by a 90-minute ferry ride, Grand Mananers have an ingrained resourcefulness that comes from isolation. This is the same place where a few years ago armed fishermen chased a drug dealer off the island of 2,400, under police escort. They also have their own way of talking, using the back of their throats to turn “island” into “oiland” in the way that some New Englanders do. And, they have dulse.

Here, they eat it in the way mainlanders eat potato chips, straight from the bag. Islanders also put dulse flakes in their fish chowders, mash potatoes, soups, fried eggs and tuna salad. Some heat it in the microwave, to crisp it up like bacon, or fry it up with butter. To many mainlanders, this salty, fishy, chewy food is an acquired taste. But on Grand Manan, it’s a staple of every kitchen.

“People who have it for the first time tell me it tastes like the sea,” Mr. Greene said. “I don’t know about that. But if you grow up with it, you just love it.”

Mr. Greene is a dulser, like his father before him and his father before him. After 53 years of harvesting dulse, he no longer goes out at the rate he used to. He leaves that to the younger men, who when lobster season ends are known to collect dulse at 2 a.m. on the beach under headlamps. At that time of night, he says he’d rather be in bed reading Edgar Allan Poe than stumbling over a darkened beach.

On his island, where they can tell which beach the dulse was picked from, and who picked it, few people are better at this than him. From June until September, Mr. Greene is often out here, along with dozens of other harvesters who earn a living plucking dulse from the rocks at low tide. When he finds a good patch, his hands work quickly, filling his 25-pound bucket in minutes. Most of the dulse he collects ends up on U.S. store shelves. He’s never bought a bag of it in his life.

“Oh that’s beautiful dulse right there,” he says, as he scans rocks under his feet.

Basket in hand, Mr. Greene harvests dulse from the rocks of Dark Harbour.

Out here, where the briny smell of the Bay of Fundy is unmistakable, harvesters must always follow the tides.

The water level around Grand Manan can rise and fall by up to five metres twice a day, so they monitor tide charts to go picking when the water is lowest.

When the ocean recedes, the wet rocks are slippery like they’ve been greased, leading to many broken wrists and twisted ankles.

Harvesters come because the dulse that grows here is considered some of the best in the world, thanks to the tall cliffs that protect the seaweed from the sun, cold water and vigorous tides that scrub it clean twice a day. That helps keep away “grey leaf,” a form of algae, and other sea life that attaches to the leaves.

“That’s just like an agitator, sloshing it back and forth,” said Mr. Flagg, a wholesaler who owns Roland’s Sea Vegetables and buys from most of the island’s harvesters.

“A lot of people will try to tell you they’re selling Grand Manan dulse, but I can tell right away that’s not what it is. They’re imitators.”

Mr. Flagg speaks proudly of Grand Manan dulse, and dismissively of people who sell ‘imitators’ of it. He buys about 10 tonnes of it every summer.

A century-old dulsing camp lies abandoned in Dark Harbour.
Mr. Greene lays out freshly harvested dulse to dry.

On a good day, dulse can be dried in six hours of sunlight. Mr. Greene does this by spreading the seaweed out on a net in a field of crushed rock, then rolling it up “like a Tootsie Roll” around a wooden post with one bicycle wheel at the end.

He works methodically and quickly, earning $8.50 a pound for dried dulse – the best price islanders have ever seen for their increasingly in-demand seaweed.

Mr. Greene has been harvesting dulse, or “dulsing” as the locals call it, all his life. Back when he was a kid, it was something his father made him and his siblings do. The children had to fill a bread bag before they could go play. Many of the dulsing camps the island’s families used to spend their summers in are long gone now, pounded into the sea by big winter storms.

It’s no longer a chore to come out here any more, Mr. Greene says. He enjoys getting up before the sun, in the early morning chill, and guiding his little dory past an old herring weir with its tall nets darkened by the tides, toward the rocky cliffs that separate Grand Manan from the ocean. A seal, alerted by the drone of the outboard motor, pokes its black head above the water and watches.

Mr. Greene knows this rugged shoreline by memory. As a boy, he’d often fall asleep curled up in the bow of his father’s boat. He scans the horizon, looking across the bay toward Maine, and says the world of the dulser is rapidly changing. But then he says he’s not sure he’s ready to quit. Not just yet.

“It’s still a good job, yeah,” he said.

Mr. Greene continues his dawn harvest of dulse.

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