Making a living from the sea, one handful at a time
Photos and text by Jon Edwards
The day before my first seaweed-harvesting trip with John Ryan, I arranged to meet him at the Orr’s Island lobster pound, where he lives during the harvesting season in a single room above the lobsters. John was on the dock, talking to lobstermen who were refueling. He told me to meet him “at first light.” I asked him when first light arrived. He looked blankly at me and said, “You know, just before the day begins . . . first light.” I pressed him for a more exact time, and he and the lobstermen just chuckled. I realized that he had no watch and that he probably didn’t need one because his body rhythms are in sync with the sun and the tides. If the lobstermen knew the time of first light, they weren’t saying.
During his lifetime John has been an orchard pruner, fisherman, lobsterman, apple picker, log roller, sawyer, and logger, and for more than forty years he has harvested seaweed on the coast of Maine. He started by renting a dory and rake for a dollar a day, and since then has retired several skiffs of his own. While rockweed—his present quarry—is certainly plentiful, it is not in great demand; it is used almost exclusively for animal supplements, a growing but still small market.
First light arrived around four a.m. I found John meditating, with a small fire in the wood stove to take off the morning chill. He starts almost every morning meditating the pain out of his body. He leaned out his window and checked the ledge below to see the state of the tide, which was falling, so we gathered our gear and stepped out his door—directly onto a ramp that brought us to the float where his boat was waiting, not twenty-five feet from his room. By habit, he leaves the bay before anyone can see where he is going, or under the cover of fog.
We soon landed in a small cove and began harvesting weed by standing on partially submerged ledges. We gathered as much as we could possibly hold and threw it directly into open nets set up in three separate compartments in the bargelike boat. If you stepped off the ledge, your waders filled with water or, worse, you were in over your head. As the tide dropped, John dragged the boat into deeper water so it would not bottom out on a ledge, which could seriously damage the hull or strand us until the tide came in again. At low tide we anchored and climbed upland over the weed-covered rocks to fill bait boxes, stomping down the weed to pack it tightly. When the boxes were full, we dragged them across the rocks and through the water, then hoisted them up over the gunwale and emptied them into the open nets.
It was backbreaking, but perhaps easier than using the rake. When the tide peaks, the weed is several feet underwater, and the only way to harvest it is with a rake-and-net combination attached to the end of a twelve-foot-long pole cut from a maple sapling. With considerable effort, you throw the rake out as far as you can, let it settle, tug the weed off the ledge, twist it, and then haul it in. If your movements aren’t smooth, you lose the weed and come up empty.
The two of us took about four hours of nonstop harvesting to fill the boat, weighting it down until there were no more than three or four inches of freeboard between the sea and us.
It was a rare day when the tides and weather, and our tired bodies, allowed for more than two and a half loads. When John was younger, he had harvested up to six loads in a day, and that was before there was a crane to remove the full nets.
We often walked to the interior of the islands when we were weeding, and he would point out the remnants of campsites. After marrying an Orr’s Island girl (the granddaughter of the foreman of the sea-moss processing plant), John built these sites so his growing family could stay with him in the summer while he fished and harvested sea moss—a plant once more valuable than the rockweed he and I gathered. At one of the campsites were remnants of a tent platform, and shelves built from boards and wooden bait-boxes collected from the shore. He described an open-air kitchen and dining room overlooking Casco Bay, and showed me where his children had swum in the warmer tidal pools.
At the beginning of the 2006 season, after John had patched his boat together for yet another year, the sole rockweed buyer in the area told him the company was going to use mechanical harvesters. Then the harvesters didn’t work, which did not surprise John, but as a consequence there was no production at the processing plant or demand for rockweed. John refitted his boat to rake and drag for sea moss, which grows on the ocean side of the ledges off the islands in Casco Bay, and is swept by the tides and currents into tidal pools that can be dragged at high tide. Sea moss is more dangerous to harvest, and his boat would take a beating from the surf and ledges, but John had no choice. He quickly found out, however, that because of sea urchin predation or overharvesting (depending on whom you ask), he couldn’t fill his boat with moss in a week, let alone in a morning.
In 2007, the mechanical harvesters, now redesigned, reappeared but were equally inefficient. That was good for John, who was offered work; that year the processor had to have weed. Because it had not been picked the previous year, the rockweed had proliferated. The price was up too, to three cents a pound.
The mechanical harvesters are being redesigned again for 2008, when John will be eighty years old. Whether the machines will work in the coming year, and whether John’s boat and fortitude will last one more season, will be determined in the spring.