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The history of dulse

January 2, 2020

It seems desirable to begin the new decade with tongue in cheek, I hope the reader enjoys this piece of foolishness

Many visitors to New Brunswick are exposed for the first time to the product of one of the world’s most remarkable and valuable creatures, the dulse. This brief account of the biology and history of this fascinating denizen of the Bay of Fundy will perhaps help them to understand it better.

In the late ice ages, the Fundy Tidal range was even greater than it is today, so that at Spring Tides with a southerly wind, it was not unusual for the tide to rise vertically more than 100 feet. The precursor of the modern porcupine would often be found on the Fundy beaches in pursuit of fiddleheads their natural prey, washed up on the shore. Not infrequently the speed of the rise in the tide would catch the porcupine unawares, and they would, in consequence, drown. Inevitably, a few survived the experience, and discovered that swimming was a possible art, and one that would improve their access to their preferred prey as they could catch them as they curled up from sea bed, rather than waiting for the tides and waves to break them loose from their footing.

As the population adapted through a normal evolutionary process, to the marine environment, two modes of behaviour developed. The lazy population tended to sit on the sea floor, and wait until a passing fiddlehead impaled itself on their spines, and then ingested the decaying weed. This line ultimately lost even vestigial traces of its limbs, and is of course the ancestor of the spiny sea urchin that is often found washed up on the shore. The more vigorous strain set out in active pursuit of the fiddlehead, and found that its spiny character was a hydrodynamic hindrance, as well as an unsatisfactory camouflage. In time the spines evolved naturally into a seaweed resembling substance, which, when dried, is the dulse we are all familiar with.

The aboriginal peoples of New Brunswick recognised early the beneficial nutritious qualities of the dulse fur, and at first hunted them with hooks baited with imitation fiddleheads. As they were conservation minded, they soon realised that the animal was capable of regrowing its fur, so they would simply cut the hair off and return them to the sea. One thing lead to another, and they discovered that by feeding the dulse regularly they could attract them to a particular spot, lure them ashore, shear them and set them free. Over time the beast adapted equally well to the benefit of interacting with man to supplement its food supplies, and as early as the third century B.C. is believed to have been trained as a herring herder, a custom that has continued to comparatively recently, when they were used to drive sardines down ever narrower channels into the cans at the Connors Brothers plant at Black’s Harbour. Unfortunately this practise had to be discontinued because of concerns raised by animal rights activists, as to trauma suffered by the juvenile herring. They have however become an extremely useful ally to the aquaculturists, who routinely use guard dulse to protect their salmon cages from seals and other predators.

Like many other sea creatures they have always been attracted by music, and they are popular additional listeners to any concert held close to the Fundy shore, as their little blackish green heads pop up and down in time to the rhythms. Early German settlers on Grand Manan were so impressed with their reaction to Vivaldi played on the clavichord, that they renamed the instrument in their honour as the Dulse always, or dulcimer in their native tongue, and who is not familiar with the carol “In Dulse Jubilo” (in dulse we rejoice) written to commemorate this event. It is small wonder that Grand Manan is still the centre of the New Brunswick Dulse Industry.

They have also had a considerable impact on Canadian History. When Samuel de Champlain overwintered on St Croix Island in 1604 the supply of food available to him and his party was tenuous, and undernourishing, as well as lacking several vital nutrients and minerals. Some of the aboriginal peoples, observing the killing of a dulse by one member of the party, unaware of the toxic nature of its flesh, as opposed to the nourishing nature of it fur, succeeded in communicating the real value of the harmless creature to Champlain, who subsequently took full advantage of the bountiful population of dulse in the vicinity, and thus survived that cruel winter to go on to higher things.

Very little is known about the breeding habits of the dulse, but it has been noted that they are rarely seen before they are at their full size, with a length of between 35 and 55 centimetres, and a weight of around 3 kilograms. Attempts to breed, or even keep dulse in captivity have all been completely unsuccessful, as they shed their fur and do not regenerate it, and appear to die of hypothermia. Post mortem examination has revealed no conventional form of sex organ, or any differentiation between male and female, if in fact they do have two sexes. Scientists have speculated that they may have developed a method of propagation more related to that of the oyster, which changes sex on an annual basis, or the earthworm, which is sexually self centred. The discovery in the great intestine of a harbour seal, of something that resembled a small dulse has given rise to the theory that the juvenile may live out the first part of its existence in an intermediate host, but most dismiss this as idle speculation.

Looking to indigenous legends as a possible source of guidance, one finds tales among the Malicete of a black sea creature that dances in the moonlight with the lobster, and there have been several reported sightings of the embrace of a dulse and a lobster, but these seem to be readily ascribed to the omnivorous eating habits of the lobster, coming across a piece of carrion, and descriptions of the dulse dancing away and singing should be ascribed to the observers proximity to a rum bottle.

Dulse shearing festivals are common throughout the Fundy Region, and are normally typified by a meal of dulse, followed by dancing and the recounting of the ancient folk tales about this unique creature. The participation of the whole population in the feasting at these festivals has actually introduced another word into the English Language, as the term a “Shearing” was used for these events, and became the generic term for a group dividing up a food supply, the word in turn became misspelled as sharing as it came into broader usage away from the dulse grounds. Many people talk of Bulls and Bears in the Stockmarket, but few are aware that the name of the very shares being traded can be traced back to this remarkable New Brunswick Creature, the Dulse.

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  1. Too many days trapped inside, right, Tim?! Now I know why I never wanted to eat dulce, it’s a living legend. No, it’s several living legends! 😏

  2. very perceptive Jane

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