GENERAL ARTICLES

Seaweed Bonanza

Maritime fishermen are raking in money as Canada becomes world’s biggest exporter of Irish moss, Cinderella weed of the sea

JOHN LEBLANC October 1 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Seaweed Bonanza

Maritime fishermen are raking in money as Canada becomes world’s biggest exporter of Irish moss, Cinderella weed of the sea

JOHN LEBLANC October 1 1944

Seaweed Bonanza

Maritime fishermen are raking in money as Canada becomes world’s biggest exporter of Irish moss, Cinderella weed of the sea

JOHN LEBLANC

IF TUE inhabitants of a farming community on the prairies were to don oilskins and sou'westers and assemble at the town hail prepared to go

deep-sea fishing, the effect would be similar to the transformation which has occurred in hundreds of fishing villages in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. On clear days, when the tide is low, thousands of fishermen, their wives and the older children, exchange nets and lines for long-handled rakes and go a-mossing.

The sea is still the field in which they labor, but what they bring back from their day’s toil is a slimy, sticky, malodorous boatload of seaweed called Irish moss, or carrageen . . . moss of the rocks. For years the weed grew in despised neglect in submarine gardens from the western headlands of Nova Scotia around into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Only a handful of people at Havre Boucher, N.S., were aware of its commercial value and their output of Irish moss never exceeded 10,000 pounds a year.

What makes Irish moss valuable is that it contains gelose, a substitute for gelatine, which is used in the manufacture of an amazingly wide variety of products from cheese to lipstick, shaving creams, and pharmaceutical preparations such as cod-liver oil.

A pound of Irish moss boiled in 30 times its weight of water will form a thick jelly . . . housewives who do their own preserving will probably detect in this characteristic of Irish moss their old friend pectin, with which they thicken jams and jellies. Commercially, the gelose obtained from Irish moss is widely employed for the same purpose. It is also used as a "thickener” in fabrics and for tanning hides.

Oil and water, according to the old adage, will not mix. But they will when gelose Is added; the result

being a smooth, milky fluid. Emulsions like cod-liver oil and probably most of the vitamin pill preparations which come in those tough jelly capsules owe their existence in their present form to the lowly moss which clings to the rocks off the eastern shores of Canada. And the next time you drink chocolate milk you can thank gelose from Irish moss for being in there propping up the particles of chocolate and keeping them from settling to the bottom. Gelose stiffens canned poultry and comes to the aid of the manufacturers of tenderized meats. It is also used for fining (that is, clarifying) your beer.

In short, whenever manufacturers require a substance that will stick, or that will hold solids and liquids together in emulsions, they look to gelose. And then they look to Irish moss, which contains 55% gelose. Besides this high proportion of gelose, Irish moss Is composed of 10% nitrogenous material and 15% mineral matter rich in iodine and sulphur . . . which make it eminently satisfactory for use in food preparations.

Today Canada has become the world’s largest exporter of Irish moss and the slimy green growth that Maritime fishermen used to revile when it fouled their nets or clung to their oars has become the Cinderella of the sea. From a despised seaweed it has been transformed into a valuable crop, sought after by thousands, tended with fond care and attention and richly rewarding those who make it their occupation to gather it in.

In its wet state, just as it is pulled from the sea by the long rakes of the Maritime fishermen, Irish moss is worth one cent a pound. Dried and bleached it brings up to 20 cents a pound.

With thousands of Maritimers now engaged in moss gathering and shipping, Canada’s production has increased 200-fold since 1940. Instead of the insignificant 10,000 pounds a year which the Havre Boucher folk used to provide, exports to the United States are now calculated in thousands of tons. And with the supply seemingly unlimited, prices holding firm, and the market for the Cinderella seaweed expanding constantly as research discovers new uses for the

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versatile gelose, all indications are that the Maritimes’ newest industry is in its boom period.

Irish moss is a green and purple seaweed that looks, as the fishermen pile it into their boats, like a mess of parsley pulled out of an outside drain. It is known to science as Chondrus crispus, a member of the algae family, in the lowest division of the animal kingdom. Its very lowliness, biologically speaking, is what helps to make Irish moss the bountiful crop it is. Chondrus crispus can start from any point on its anatomy and, simply by dividing and multiplying, grow in all directions at once. Consequently, the fishermen are assured of an abundant yield in their submarine gardens. The leaflike formations, which sometimes attain fantastic lengths, sprout from a disc-shaped suction cup called a holdfast, which attaches itself to the rocks. When raking in the Irish moss the fisherman has only to take care not to dislodge the holdfast. Then he can return next year to the same rocks and find an equally luxuriant growth waiting to be plucked. Because the moss contains chlorophyll it is able to use the energy of the sun and build up the compounds forming its body from carbon dioxide, water and other simple substances. So this crop requires no cultivation.

Before the war America imported Irish moss from Europe, where it was gathered chiefly by the Irish and French. Beds along the coast of Massachusetts, mostly around Scituate, provided a small amount. Competition for Irish moss was provided by agar-agar, another red seaweed which came from China and Japan. With all overseas sources of gelose cut off, the American users were forced to look closer to home for their supply. In 1940 a United States chemical firm began enquiries among the cannery operators in the Maritimes and invited them tp send samples of the seaweeds growing in their districts for analysis.

One of the men who received this enquiry was Walter Murphy, a clam and fish packer at Wedgeport, N.S., now the biggest Irish moss dealer in Nova Scotia.

What They Wanted

NEVER knew what the stuff was until four years ago,” Murphy says. “I’d heard it called Irish moas but all it was to me was that old seaweed that used to break loose in a storm and come rolling in and make a mess of my wharf.”

Encouraged by the letter from the chemical company, Murphy took a boat out to the moss beds, gathered some and shipped it.

“It was what they were looking for,” he says. “And when I found out the kind of money they were willing to pay for that old seaweed I began to get interested.” He persuaded the Wedgeport fishermen to go out and gather the moss. All the equipment required was a long-handled, fine-toothed rake which could be purchased for $2 or made at home for 50 cents, a dory, which every fisherman owns anyway, and a strong back, which is also a natural—and essential—part of a fisherman’s equipment.

Wedgeport is a typical Nova Scotia fishing village, lying at the western tip of the province along the mouth of the Tusket River. It has a population of 1,500. Today, according to Walter Murphy, every adult, male and female, and every strong youth in the community, goes mossing when the weather is right. For them the Irish moss industry has been truly a Cinderella wealth, produced as if by magic from the muck of the sea. In recent years trawlers and fish draggers have encroached more and more deeply into the areas where these people used to win their precarious livings. Now, thanks to Irish moss, they are no longer entirely dependent on fishing for their livelihood. It’s a poor hand with a rake who can’t haul up a thousand pounds of moss in a day and earn $10. With your wife and a strong boy helping, moss gleaning on a good day will bring in double that amount. And when “that old seaweed” breaks loose in a storm now and rolls up on the wharves, it’s a windfall for somebody, literally worth its weight in money.

While Walter Murphy was explaining the basic economics of Irish moss gathering, two Acadian fishermen came out of the weighing room in the big weather-beaten sheds where the dried moss is stored before shipping. “See those two?” Murphy said. “They just made themselves $70 in a couple of days at the beds . . . Not bad.”

Not bad indeed. Even the farmers along the coast are finding a more profitable harvest on the sea bottom than they ever were able to wring from their own rock-strewn fields.

As in all his other activities, the fisherman is the servant of wind and tides when he turns to mossing. At high tide the moss is too far below the surface to be reached. When the waves run high in squally weather

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it is impossible to keep a small boat in position long enough to take in a load.

But on clear days, when the tide is low, the fishermen and their families and the neighborhood farmers assemble in their dories at the mouth of the Tusket River, armed with their longhandled rakes. In boat trains of eight to 10 dorries, hitched behind Walter Murphy’s big power boat, they are towed out to the moss beds, six miles from shore. Then for the duration of ebb tide the little boats bob and weave among the rocks while the gleaners dip their rakes with the rhythmic motion of mowers in a hayfield. As the dories are filled Murphy’s launch picks them up and tows them back to the docks to dump their loads.

In the outlying districts the fishermen organize their own boat trains, sharing the cost of the fuel for the motor boat which is required to tow them out to the beds and down the coast to Murphy’s docks. Mostly the moss is brought in wet. Some farmers, not many, dry and bleach their moss at home and haul it to Wedgeport by oxcart or truck. For dry moss they receive from five to 20 cents a pound, depending on quality, but the higher price scarcely compensates for the labor involved in caring for the moss while it is drying, the loss in weight, and the hazards involved in bleaching.

“We’ve had to learn a lot,” Murphy explains. “First we had to learn what is Irish moss and what isn’t. Then we found out you have to watch it like a cake in the oven when it’s drying, and when it’s bleaching you have to treat it like a prima donna.”

The wet moss is pitchforked from the boats to the huge, sun-bleached wharf and tedded out thinly to dry. Workmen with wooden spreaders move through the moss, turning it and shaking off the excess water. In good sunlight the moss will dry in two or three days, and a certain amount can be shipped immediately in this state to be used for fining beer. The greater part, however, has to be further dried and bleached until it takes on a yellowish, translucent, hornlike color and consistency. To get it into that condition is the most difficult part of preparing the moss for export.

Bleaching Is Tricky

To bleach, after drying, the moss has to be kept wet. And wet with salt water . . . not fresh water. Fresh

water dissolves the all-important gelose. A rain can be ruinous. Even a heavy fog will destroy the gelatinous properties of t he moss and render it worthless. On many a night, after they learned this disastrous secret, Walter Murphy and all the able-bodied helpers he could enlist in Wedgeport have been forced to turn out in the dark before an approaching storm and work like mad to get the moss stacked and covered before the rain hit it.

Sometimes the moss is still left exposed on the drying beds overnight but the first hint of fog or a handkerchief of cloud on the horizon will send the moss handlers scurrying to get it covered.

Moss in the drying stage is stacked under waterproof tarpaulins; moss in the bleaching is stowed in enormous hogsheads moored to the docks and floating in the sea. During the hours of sunlight the moss is spread over the docks again and pumps play a fine mist of salt water drawn from the tidal Tusket River over the bleaching beds. Murphy’s present bleaching facilities permit him to turn out about 20,000 pounds a week. Last year shipments

from Wedgeport were close to 400,000 pounds and Murphy is busy with plans to extend his facilities, improve the mechanical equipment and enlist more help. He has assurance that the market in the United States will absorb all the moss he and the Wedgeport fishermen can produce.

Government statistics on the export of moss have not kept pace with the swift growth of the trade. For example, Nova Scotia shipments in 1943 are listed officially as 155,000 pounds. Murphy maintains he shipped more than twice that amount himself. In 1942 Prince Edward Island . . . again according to Government figures . . . exported 1,490,000 pounds and New Brunswick 28,000 pounds.

Most Canadian moss goes either to Chicago or to Gary, Ind., where it is refined to obtain the valuable gelose. One big user, a famous cheese company, has set up a plant at Central Chebogue, close to the moss beds of Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth County. Equipment is being installed for grinding the moss to cut down shipping volume and this company recently announced its intention of erecting a refinery in Nova Scotia to extract the gelose close to where the moss is obtained.

All three provincial Governments of the Maritimes also are making determined efforts to encourage expansion and development of the industry to maintain the pre-eminent position now held by Canada in Irish moss production.

In order to do this, and to protect the market from overseas competition after the war, it is recognized that it will be necessary to extend the industry through to the final processing, and other manufacturers besides tue cheese company are investigating the possibilities of building their own refineries in the Maritimes.

Dealers like Walter Murphy would also like to see the refineries established here. But for the moment they are principally concerned with increasing the capacity of their drying and bleaching beds and improving equipment for handling the crop.

“Our trouble right now,” Murphy says, “is to keep up with the damned stuff. . . it grows so fast.”

He does not fear postwar competition. “Fellows who should know,” he says, “tell me our Irish moss is better quality than they used to get from Europe. Something about the water seems to put more of the ielly stuff into it. When we have more e^Derience and can give more attention to selecting and grading we’ll have an even better product. Besides, we’re closer to the market, which cuts our shipping costs. Of course, if they begin refining right here in the Maritimes . . . well, then we’re all set.”

Thousands of fishermen along Canada’s eastern seaboard who have found living easier and more profitable since the Cinderella wealth of Irish moss came to boost their income will send up a fervent amen to Walter Murphy’s confidence in the future. Everybody likes to rake in that “green lettuce” which buys the groceries and pays the bills, and the Maritime fishermen don’t mind if they have to find their lettuce on the bottom of the sea. Not, at least, while the dealers are willing to pay a cent a pound for it.