In late October I went kelp harvesting with a twist. I was “tending” Ron, one of our main harvesters, who was scuba diving for beautiful golden Digitata kelp fronds in 5-10 feet of water off Stanley Ledge, near Jonesport. Usually Ron is leaning over the side of his 14 ft. skiff cutting kelp on or near the surface, but on this day he was handing cut Digitata fronds to me as I waited in the boat. So why dive for it, and why so late in the season? First, the tides were “off”(not very low), so the plants weren’t showing on the surface. But it was the second reason that sent my mind back a few decades.
Back in the 70’s my wife Linnette and I could rarely harvest enough kelp to keep up with demand. We’d often find ourselves out in terrible weather “scrounging” to fill an order (just as Ron and I were doing late in the season, last fall). Even in the 80’s, being out of stock by spring was pretty common. Some years the drying season would be too cloudy or rainy, or too windy. Or the plants would mature too early, the epiphytes (small plants and other creatures that sometimes grow on seaweeds) would cover them or the periwinkles would get them before we did, leaving them riddled with holes.
I remember that when we first took on a major customer like the Erewhon Store in Boston, or a big distributor like Bread & Circus, we warned them up front that shortages might happen. And sure enough they did, despite the fact that Linnette and I would go out in January, February and March and get what we could with frozen fingers and feet (rubber waders are not warm!). We never seemed to get ahead, even after Carl, John, Ron, and Leroy came on as harvesters to help us.
Not until the early 90’s did we manage to stockpile a surplus in most seasons to make sure orders could be filled year round. And in most years since then, Mother Ocean has given us “enough,” with occasional out of stocks or rationing until the next harvest. Now, of course, customers both large and small, distributors and individuals, look for uninterrupted supplies of our hand-crafted sea vegetables, as if they were a commodity we grow out back or manufacture in our front production room.
This year, it turns out, is more like the early years. Mother Nature, in the form of Hurricane Irene, gave us a 36-hour pounding swell in late August that ripped much of the dulse and laver off the rocks and beat up most of the kelps (Ron told me of an entire bay of kelp “shards” he had seen up near Cutler). And in the form of the Japanese tsunami, nature exposed our nuclear vulnerability that sent us hundreds of new customers looking for a natural form of iodine and consuming any surplus we had from past harvests. This double whammy has left us short on sea vegetables and rationing what we have to spread it as equitably and widely as possible.