Sandy Flagg has been in the dulse business on Grand Manan for 54 years and he’s never seen a worse season.
Flagg, who operates Roland’s Sea Vegetables, estimates this year’s sales to be about 20 per cent of what they are normally.
In fact, things are so bad, he hasn’t sold a single leaf of the edible seaweed to the mainland. All of his sales this year are at his roadside stand near Dark Harbour.
Pointing to his empty shelves, Flagg said they’re usually full this time of year. Earlier this week, the only dulse he had for sale were a few 57-gram plastic bags of it.
Flagg and local dulse pickers agree that the problems are many — all culminating in the worst dulse season most can remember.
The main issue is what’s called grey leaf, although it’s more of an unappetizing greenish-brown colour. Scientists say it’s likely an algae or sediment on the purple leaves of the plant.
“Tthere’s a certain amount of it in all of the dulse every year,” Flagg said. “But it’s just a matter of picking out three or four leaves.”
This year, however, the harvest is about 90 per cent grey, he estimated — far too much to pick out. That’s why he hasn’t been able to sell it in bulk as usual.
While Flagg said it’s perfectly safe to eat — and two seaweed scientists agree — consumers don’t want it.
What little he has been able to put on the shelf this summer is accompanied by signs warning of the low quality.
Steven Bass has been picking dulse for 51 years, starting with his family when he was 10. He’s never seen anything like this year’s season.
Bass works a longer dulse season than most, starting in March and picking into October, and he usually picks thousands of kilograms of first-quality dulse each year. This year, he’s only managed to pick about 90 kg of the coveted deep-purple variety. The rest has been grey leaf.
This year’s product has not been close to his or his customers’ standards.
“So I’ve told my customers that until I can harvest quality dulse that I consider to be good, I won’t sell it.”
He, like many others, ends up grinding grey leaf into flakes that are sold for cooking and other uses.
“So that’s really what’s saved the dulse harvest this season is the second-quality dulse,” Bass said. “Without that … it would have been pathetic.”
Still edible, say scientists
David Garbary has been studying seaweed since the 1970s.
The biology professor at St. Francis Xavier University said palmeria palmata, which produces traditional Maritime dulse, is a cold-water species that occurs across the North Atlantic.
“And it just so happens that Grand Manan and Digby Neck and parts of a few places in the upper Bay of Fundy are places where this plant has grown quite prolifically — in part because the water is quite cold year round,” said Garbary.
The grey dulse is exactly the same species, he said. It just doesn’t look or taste as good.
Grey leaf is just as bad this summer across the Bay of Fundy in the Digby area, says Wanda Van Tassel, who’s operated Fundy Adventures since 1999 and picked a lot longer than that.
She also said it’s the worst year she’s ever seen.
“I still have local markets I haven’t even got dulse to yet and the season is almost over so yes, this is the worst year ever.”
Good quantity, poor quality
Although there’s still plenty of dulse around, Bass said there’s much less than decades ago. But there are a lot more pickers now.
And that’s led to a more competitive atmosphere on the shore and to pressure to go dulsing, even when conditions are poor.
“Everyone’s trying to survive,” he said.
On Wednesday, for example, the storm surge created dangerous conditions for small boats like those used by dulse pickers, said Bass.
He said a lot of people tried to go out, but ended up turning around and heading back to shore.
Bass didn’t turn around though.
He said it “probably wasn’t the worst decision that I’ve made in the 51 years I’ve done it, but it wasn’t safe to be there. It really wasn’t.”
But with so many pickers all vying for a limited supply of seaweed, many are willing to take the risk, said Bass.
“There’s so many people involved that you try to get as many tides in as quickly as you can because … the resource is very limited now compared to what it used to be.”
The pressure to pick is so strong that some even go out on two low tides in a day.
That’s what Dawson Brown did on Tuesday. He went out at 2 a.m. and then headed back out again at 3:30 p.m.
Brown has been picking dulse since he was 11.
“This season here has definitely been the worst quality dulse I’ve seen on the western side of Grand Manan, but it’s actually the most dulse I’ve seen though on the western side of Grand Manan in the last five years,” said Brown, 24.
Lots of dulse, but terrible quality.
Pickers get paid less for second-quality dulse.
Brown said the quantity helps make up for the poor quality, “so we’re doing as good as we usually do that way, financially.”
But with so many pickers, he said tensions sometimes flare on the coast if pickers think others are getting too close to them. That’s how competitive things are.
“You’ve got to be on your A game for the first five or six tides or you’re not going to get done it. It gets picked quick.”
Wet summer not helping
On top of the other issues this year, Brown said the weather has been terrible for drying. He said dulse will rot if it’s not dried within about four days.
For ideal dulse, the raw seaweed needs sun and a bit of wind — something there hasn’t been a lot of this summer.
That means that even the first-rate dulse hasn’t crisped up.
Most people, explained Flagg, prefer crispy dulse to soft and chewy.
Anything that doesn’t qualify as first-rate dulse is usually ground up into flakes, since the process of grinding converts the leaves into the more palatable deep purple colour of the top-quality dulse.
Flagg said consumers definitely prefer the deep purple variety, “but if you can’t get the real good [stuff], some of them will take this, a small bag of it just to chew on it because they like it.”
Why so bad this year?
Flagg said “it’s just a theory,” but he believes the culprit is global warming. He thinks the warmer weather in the Bay of Fundy is changing the dulse harvest — and many others in the industry, along with scientists, agree.
“The Gulf of Maine has been formally described as an ocean hotspot, such that the temperature there is rising 10 times faster than the rest of the world, and that’s occurred over the last 20 years,” said Garbary.
“It’s possible that that warm water is affecting the growth of dulse.”
As part of the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been monitoring water temperatures in the area every month for decades.
The nearest location to Grand Manan is called Prince 5 and is located east of Campobello Island.
Dave Hebert, a research scientist with the department, isolated the data for Prince 5.
It shows a gradual increase in average annual temperatures of 3.7 C — from a low of 5.17 C in 1926 to a high of 8.83 C in 2021.
In addition to warmer water, Flagg believes grey leaf has thrived this year because of unusually calm weather. He said the crashing of the waves tends to keep the algae from forming and causing the discolouration.
“When the tide’s up … it’s just like being in an agitator in the washer. It’s always slish-sloshing. And with no swell … it just sort of lays there and the sediments just lay on it and attach to it,” said Flagg.
While he hasn’t examined any specimens, Garbary said the discolouration may be caused by diatoms, a type of microalgae, or sediment particles — or both — that settle on the dulse fronds.
That would explain why constant agitation by crashing waves would help prevent them from settling on the leaves.
That also makes sense to Brown.
“This year has been a very calm year. We haven’t had much wind, the bay is very flat, and it’s definitely affecting the grey leaf. … There’s nothing to wash it off, ” he said.