Miminegash, Prince Edward Island used to be called the "Irish Moss capital of the world". Local people traditionally earn a seasonal living harvesting the rich beds of Irish moss, a seaweed valued for its carrageenan content. The harvest has alw ays been sold to transnational corporations who in turn ship the dried plants out of the country for value-added processing. Irish moss extract ends up in a variety of processed foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
In recent years, the buyers have been reducing prices and quotas of Irish moss in Miminegash, and turning to suppliers in South America and South-East Asia, where labour costs are lower. Together with the loss of the cod industry, this downturn in the Canadian Irish moss industry left Miminegash people in a deepening spiral of economic despair.
Many of those displaced from the Irish moss fishery are women -- the ones who do most of the shore work of unloading, spreading, drying and reloading the harvest. Their work is hard but their connection with the sea is strong. They have no interest i n leaving the homes they own and the environment they love to seek work in a city, so they've joined together as members of Women in Support of Fishing. The group has teamed up with a marine botanist, Dr. Irene Novaczek, to explore new markets for their local resources.
In the spring of 1992, Women in Support of Fishing received limited funding from the Canadian government for a feasibility study to determine whether local edible seaweeds, including Irish moss, would be in demand on the Canadian health-food market. B y the end of the summer, the group had built and tested solar dryers, developed a line of six dried seaweed products and several seaweed-related craft items -- for example, "Sea-notes" postcards featuring pressed seaweeds -- and performed test-marketing i n local health-food and tourist outlets.
The various products were warmly received in local markets but the question remained -- how to develop and promote a product with appeal to a market large enough to generate a sufficient number of jobs? A research trip to a seaweed company in the Unit ed States and a marketing study performed by an organic consultant told the women that the business had considerable potential, but required considerable work.
From the beginning, there was a strong belief that any new business developed from the project must be owned and operated by members of the community. After decades of work for a big company from "away," the women were determined to find a way to keep the profits from their local resources in their community. They were looking for a high-value product that could be processed locally and sent directly to market. They wanted to find an option that was sustainable and built upon the skills and infrastr ucture available locally. A worker owned co-operative seemed to be the answer.
The need to keep ownership entirely in the village made the problem of raising capital very serious. The four founding co-op members could not afford to have their personal investment exceed $1500 each, and even for this they would have to take out ba nk loans. Being set up as a worker co-operative also put constraints on potential investment capital. In addition, it was obvious from the response of government officials that they distrusted co-ops. Nevertheless, the women held to their belief in the co-op model.
Plans were drawn up. The harvesting and primary processing will take place aboard the harvesting boat, to avoid cull seaweed and salt water waste disposal problems at the shore facility. The traditional Irish moss harvesting gear will be adjusted to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. And the shore facility will also house an interpretive centre to highlight the history of the Irish moss industry and educate visitors about the health and nutritional benefits of edible seaplants.
There was clearly a need for financial aid to get the project through a period of research and infrastructure development For example, it was necessary to design appropriately scaled technology for ocean-friendly harvesting and more efficient washing and grading machinery. The women looked to government funding programs that pledge support of "sustainable economic development," programs with guidelines that seem to fit their project perfectly. For example, they applied to the sustainable developmen t arm of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) for funds to build a prototype commercial solar dryer, and to help design and build environmental technology.
Women in Support of Fishing received encouraging signs from government agencies, and hopes soared. The Miminegash Seaside Co-op was formally incorporated in preparation for the first harvest season. Then they waited. Spring came and went. The women volunteered their hours, which turned to days and then weeks. The co-op gathered signatures on a petition to show they enjoyed widespread support in the community. Politicians were lobbied. Orders started to come in as a result of early press coverage .
It has been a difficult wait, with only limited success. The path to sustainable development and community-based management is cluttered with many hurdles, not the least of which are those placed by governments. It is sadly ironic that governments -- supporters of outside companies and mega-projects that frequently leave the Maritimes once the tax breaks are over -- are often reluctant to support a small-scale, local initiative that intends to stay at home.
Nevertheless, the members of Women in Support of Fishing are determined to find solutions for a troubled small community economy. While they haven't given up on the idea of packaged edible sea plants for the health food market, they are now creating a three-section "seaweed mini-mall" which includes the Irish Moss Interpretive Centre, the Seaweed Pie Cafe, and the Seaside Crafts and Gifts Shop. The mini-mall, set in a restored old school house donated by the local council, is expected to open its doo rs in June of 1994.
The cafe features a diverse menu of meals and desserts made with sea products, including a locally-famous 'Irish Moss Mousse': the gift shop will sell a variety of artwork, jewelry, clothing and woodwork products crafted from driftwood and shore plants . Tourism will play an important role in the success of the venture, but the women realize that local support will be key to their on-going prosperity.
Sustainable development, support for women and coastal communities, and support for co-operatives are often just words on government paper. Those paper policies will never be implemented unless there is a sea-change in attitude towards economics, comm unity and the environment.
Women in Support of Fishing and the Miminegash Seaside Co-op offer lessons for other community initiatives, and holds the promise of a new kind of resource management in the Maritimes. The key is creating a supportive atmosphere and convincing govern ments that locally-controlled, appropriate-scale 'green jobs' are the answer, not mega-projects.
Written by Dr. Irene Novaczek, November 1993.
From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the
Environment & Development Coalition..