This story was first published in The Harpswell Anchor – June 2019.
Growing up on Little Yarmouth Island in Harpswell, Greg and Bonnie Tobey inadvertently became aware of seaweed harvesting at a young age. They watched with childlike curiosity as a lone seaweed harvester earned his living on the waters surrounding the island, passing by on a seaweed-laden skiff day in and day out. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Greg and Bonnie Tobey would eventually become the driving force behind Source, Inc., the Harpswell-based harvesting company that they watched from the shore as children.
“It’s kind of ironic that we ended up working for the company that we’ve watched since we were kids,” Bonnie says. “I like the fact that Source is a grassroots company. It’s a good honest living and it’s a great cause.”
Source started with a horse named Hull. In 1969, Susan Domizi was training Hull for the Olympic equestrian team when he began suffering from health problems for which Domizi could find no cure. She took a chance on a seaweed-based product from Ireland and noticed significant improvements, despite being unimpressed with the quality of the ingredients. As a biochemist, Domizi took it upon herself to develop a high-quality nutritional supplement using rockweed, a type of seaweed found locally. Domizi realized that the micronutrients found in seaweed are nutrients that are typically lacking in highly processed foods and in food raised in depleted soils. After extensive research and consultations with experts, she formulated a blend to use in horses’ food to help with a variety of health issues, including hoof and coat condition and weight gain. Word soon spread about its success and by 1975, Domizi became a reluctant entrepreneur as the founder of Source, Inc.
Source’s commitment to quality and sustainability has allowed the company to withstand the test of time in an era when nutritional trends easily come and go. In 1993, Domizi co-founded the Maine Seaweed Council, an organization dedicated to the sustainability of the seaweed resource and, in 2003, she designed a new hand rake for more efficient harvesting. In 2007, Domizi’s husband designed a mechanical harvester to improve efficiency, reduce by-catch (marine organisms that are inadvertently harvested along with the seaweed), and ensure that the seaweed was being cut above the state-mandated height of 16”. After many years with two mechanical harvesters, H1 and H2 (Harvester 1 and Harvester 2), Source launched a new, more efficient mechanical harvester, H3, designed to create less noise in response to concerns from neighbors on the water.
Although Domizi retains ownership of the company, the Tobeys are now the consistent presence along Harpswell’s shores. The Tobeys have been involved in running Source’s day-to-day operations for the past several years. After working in the corporate world, banks, and hospitals, Bonnie was ready for a change. She started working at Source in 2011 as the Production Manager and Greg joined the team as the General Manager in 2013, after having spent a number of years as the Director of Fleet and Facilities at a nonprofit sailing company in Boston. Both Greg and Bonnie have been actively involved with the Maine Seaweed Council for the past several years.
“We’re doing a delicate dance. We’ve spent a long time trying to work with our neighbors on the water and develop relationships with these people. We care about people, we genuinely do. They know our reputation,” explains Bonnie.
Over the course of forty years, Source has implemented a series of practices designed to promote the long-term viability of the seaweed resource in Harpswell’s waters. Source rotates its harvest between twenty sectors in and around the New Meadows River and Quahog Bay, alternating locations to encourage rejuvenation; each sector is harvested and then allowed to rest for three years. Source hires and trains harvesters who are paid an hourly rate as company employees, instead of using self-employed contractors who are paid by the pound. This ensures that harvesters abide by company policies for purposes of quality control. Company policy does not allow employees to harvest during spore season (November to May) to sustain the longevity of the resource, or on weekends out of respect for neighbors with concerns about noise. Harvesting locations are determined in advance by Greg, who plans according to detailed records going back decades with specific information about who harvests what, where, and when. Records also show the changes in by-catch from a time when hand raking was the primary form of harvesting; since the implementation of the mechanical harvesters, by-catch has been greatly reduced. Mechanical harvesters are equipped with a sorting table for by-catch, which is then documented and returned to its natural habitat.
Source’s harvesters bring in approximately 18 bags of seaweed a day for a total of 800 pounds (when wet), which is processed at the facility in Brunswick within 24 hours to avoid degradation. After being sorted, shredded, dehydrated, sealed and shipped to Connecticut, Domizi blends seaweed harvested at different times throughout the year to account for the changes in nutrient content. Source now produces soil enhancement blends and nutrition supplements for horses, dogs, and humans, which are sold in 18 countries.
According to Bonnie and Greg, Source has spent the past few decades working to maintain the future of the seaweed resource and will continue to do so, despite changes within the industry that present challenges with no clear solution. Due to the increase in natural healing trends, more people are getting into the business of harvesting seaweed in a time when practices are minimally regulated by the Department of Marine Resources. Regulations require individuals to have a harvesting license, harvest above the 16” height requirement, and document their landings; in Cobscook Bay only, harvesting is limited to 17% of harvestable seaweed in each sector. “I believe that the DMR needs to regulate seaweed harvesting. We need even more regulations taking advantage of the science that’s coming along,” explains Domizi.
Because seaweed harvesting on its current scale is relatively new, there are few studies that have been conducted to determine the long-term viability of various harvesting practices. Source is currently working with four universities, including the University of Maine, University of New England, and Maine Maritime Academy, to conduct studies about seaweed and by-catch. With increased community outreach efforts, Greg and Bonnie hope to educate the public to ensure an understanding of the industry and promote sustainable practices to protect the future of the seaweed resource.
“I hope to see the right regulations. . .We have protected the resource passionately for 40 years now. We need the regulations in place so that 5 or 10 years from now, Source can still harvest in these same beds and take care of them and maintain what we have built. That’s my hope for Source – that we’ll still be around,” explains Bonnie Tobey.
In March 2019, as a result of a lawsuit involving Acadian Seaplants, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that rockweed grown in the intertidal zone is owned by the upland landowner, thereby requiring harvesters to get permission from landowners before harvesting seaweed. Seaweed harvesters previously operated under a colonial ordinance from the 1640’s which asserts that the public is free to harvest living marine resources in the intertidal zone.
“We consider Harpswell our home and we’ve always tried, and will continue to try, to be good neighbors,” explains Domizi.
With memories of a childhood along the shore, and a life built around the tides, Greg and Bonnie Tobey strive to protect the future of the seaweed that surrounds the island upon which their family has lived and worked since 1859. Domizi and the Tobeys spend their days striking a balance between sharing the health benefits and sustaining the future of one of Maine’s valuable natural resources. “Bonnie and I grew up walking on the seaweed that we’re harvesting and have very deep roots in the area. We are very invested in wanting to see everything work. . . We need the people of the coast of Maine to say, wait a minute, let’s work together,” states Greg Tobey.