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Specialty Markets

Traditional fishing activities have revolved around shellfish and molluscs but, over the past fifty years, new fisheries have emerged to cater to special markets overseas or in the processing sector.

One such commodity is Irish moss, a tiny marine plant that has a shape resembling moose antlers. It grows in the ocean, from Newfoundland to New Jersey and from northern Norway to Spain. In most places, it grows with other seaweeds but only in Prince Edward Island does it grow in high concentrations, in the absence of competing species. It is especially abundant in the waters surrounding western Prince Edward Island, near Miminegash and Tignish.

“Storm toss,” free-floating moss broken loose from the bottom of the sea by a storm, is most often harvested using workhorses. The horses do work that tractors or boats could never accomplish—providing power in the rough, chest-deep swells of the Gulf of St. Lawrence after a storm. The horses drag scoops through the surf, catching the floating moss, and pile it on the shore, where it is shovelled onto trucks or trailers. In calm waters, boats drag for moss up to several hundred metres off shore. Sometimes, moss pickers can simply fork the moss into the trunks of their cars when the moss rolls up on shore. Since dried moss fetches a better price than the wet product, the moss pickers take their harvest home and lay it out to dry on any available space—lawns, fields, driveways, and back roads.

Irish Moss RakeIrish moss is most often harvested directly, raked from the sea floor. Long rakes are dragged from lobster boats which haul 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of moss per day. This method is restricted, however, as it has the potential to harm other fisheries by disrupting animals and their habitat. Lobsters especially tend to inhabit the rocky bottom of the sea, hiding among the weeds.

The moss is then sold to processors who, using a complicated process involving soaking the plants in alkaline hot water and filtering it, extract a substance called carrageenan. Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us consume Irish moss almost every day. The extracted carrageenan is used to bind, gel, thicken, stabilize, or suspend particles in a wide variety of foods, cosmetics, and industrial products. It suspends colour pigments in water based paints, prevents the cocoa in chocolate milk from settling to the bottom, binds toothpaste and gives it its sheen, makes ice cream consistent and creamy, and helps whipped cream hold its shape.

Another weed growing in waters around Prince Edward Island, furcellaria, is harvested around the eastern end of the Island. It contains a brown carrageenan that is used most often as a clarifier in beer.

Approximately ten Island fishermen are licensed to harvest sea urchins. About half of them operate out of Tignish, where the urchin is most abundant. Harvests are sold to a buyer-processor who then markets the product to Japan, where urchin roe is considered a seafood delicacy. In some areas, suction harvesters are used to fish the urchin, whereas in other parts of the Island, fishermen hire local divers who work for a share of the harvest.

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Aquaculture | Lobster | Shellfish | Finfish