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Voices of the Maine Fishermen's Forum: Micah Woodcock, Sedgwick

Micah Woodcock was born in Maine but moved around frequently growing up. He found his way back to the state as an adult and now works as a wild-seaweed harvester on a small island off Stonington. This interview was recorded in March 2018 at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Micah Woodcock was interviewed by Galen Koch. This interview was edited by intern Kaitlyn Clark.

In the winters, I live in Sedgwick and the rest of the year I live on a very small island many miles off Stonington. I wild harvest edible seaweeds or sea vegetables for food, and I’ve been doing that for eight years now after apprenticing with a harvester who’s been harvesting in the same bay for about 40 years. Seaweed harvesting is regulated as a fishery by the Department of Marine Resources. But as far as who harvests where, that is more self-regulated among the harvesters. It’s a small enough industry that we know each other and we know who’s harvesting where and we give each other room to work. It’s important to distinguish between the sea vegetables and the rockweed. The rockweed is a bigger industry and different end use of the products. That’s more for animal feed and fertilizer and there the volumes are different. With the sea vegetables, we’re taking relatively small quantities and it’s for human consumption and so there’s a lot more quality control. So with the sea veggies there’s five companies, four of which are owner-operated so you have individuals or families who are really running all aspects of the business. There’s one larger company that buys from some independent harvesters, but that’s the bulk of it at this point. ... I’m off and on for usually about three seasons. As far as what’s out there, fishing is just about all and it’s a great spot for me, as far as having access to a lot of the quality edible seaweeds. My really concentrated work is around the new moon and the full moon, with the bigger tides. I go out with the tide. I’ll usually be out harvesting for maybe three hours a day, and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, 2:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning. And you’re out harvesting for a few hours and then come back and unload everything and then you’re hanging everything up to dry or spreading it out on wooden racks. can dry really quickly. So I start the seaweeds outside. usually I move them into a building where I’ve got fans and heat and then it’s dry in 24 to 36 hours and then you start over. You’re moving with the tides so you’re working harvesting and hanging seaweed up and then you’re taking down seaweed that you harvested the day before and then moving the stuff from that day earlier inside and so the work day is going to be 12, 14, 16 hours and then you sleep a little bit and then you get up again and head out in the dark and go look for more seaweed. ...

The primary interaction that most people on the coast have with seaweed throughout their lives is dead seaweed that’s washed up on the beach. That’s sort of seaweed at its worst. It’s like if you lived somewhere where nobody ate lobster but were used to stepping on them dying and decomposing on the beach, that’s what the relationship would be like. The rockweed, which is what most people are accustomed to, isn’t used for food a whole lot traditionally, mostly it’s the bigger kelps and dulse and Irish moss and things that grow in more exposed places. You boil typically in milk to extract the gel that’s in it and make pudding. It’s a very amazing gelatinous substance that has almost countless uses in food products and in industrial products. Occasionally I have sold it to an architectural firm that uses it in their three-dimensional models to represent trees, to have it along their little streets and their fake buildings. And people have gotten it from me for artistic purposes to make paint or to marble paper and dye things and all kinds of stuff. There’s a bit of a running joke among some of the wild harvesters, more of a running question, whether seaweed harvesting makes you crazy or crazy people are attracted to seaweed harvesting. One conclusion is that it’s a little bit of both, it attracts people who are a little bit sideways from the get-go and it reinforces that. Once you’re in the industry, you start to meet more and more people who are seaweed crazy and they love doing it and they have a whole way of life built up around it. For me, I’ve always been interested in things that are overlooked and grew up gardening and cooking and stuff and got interested in weeds and their culinary uses. Then in high school I met a guy who used to work for the harvester who I apprenticed with. So a few years later I tracked the old-timer down and then one thing led to another. ... I think you need to leave Maine to appreciate it. A lot of people who leave go to urban areas and a lot of cities are getting increasingly expensive so you have to work harder and harder for a lesser quality of life. One thing also is that it’s easier to stand out in Maine. If you just show up and you do something remarkable and you keep showing up, people are going

to support you partly because there’s less going on. I don’t mean that in the sense of, “Oh, well, it’s a good place for people who failed elsewhere, you can come back home.” ‘Cause people are doing things that would be remarkable wherever they are doing them, but there’s more overt support from the get-go here. My parents me all over the world as a kid so I’ve lived lots of places and then did a bunch of traveling on my own to really see what was what all around America. I came back to Maine really by accident. I wasn’t, “Oh I’m going to move back to Maine.” I came back to visit and liked what I saw as an adult and stuck around. ... The scalability of the wild-harvested edible seaweed in Maine is pretty small. There’s room for a little more sustainable harvest, but honestly not that much. It’s always going to be a relatively small fishery and I think that’s one of its strengths. That gives me confidence for the future because with the smaller number of people realistically it can be easier to work things out. We know each other and we know who’s harvesting where and we have a vested interest in keeping the peace. If I come step on your toes and harvest in your area, you can come do the same to me. People have gotten along remarkably well in that regard in the past, so that gives me hope.

Voices of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, an Oral History was made possible by Maine Sea Grant, The First Coast, College of the Atlantic, and the Island Institute. This series is coordinated by Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant.

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