The Irish Moss industry provides a unique way of life for those involved with the harvest on Prince Edward Island. In its heyday, entire communities were involved in the collection of the saltwater plant, Irish moss along the shores of PEI. Today, the industry is still alive but to a lesser extent and primarily only in the western part of the province. The methods of harvesting using horse-drawn rakes to gather the windswept moss were developed on PEI and can be seen to this day along the west coast. Most of the harvesting is now done by boat but there are still those who gather moss along the shoreline after a storm.
The industry began with a small number of fishermen in the 1930s and quickly grew into a multimillion-dollar industry in just a few decades. This was largely due to the demand for the carrageenan that was extracted from the harvested moss. This material is used in a wide variety of products such as beer, toothpaste, ice cream and countless other dairy products. Carrageenan binds ingredients together, keeps large ice crystals from forming and clarifies liquids. All these things are done with the product with no added calories or flavours, making the extract very valuable.
Since its peak in the 1970s, the industry has been in a state of decline. This is largely due to the fact that other sources of carrageenan have been developed around the world. Also the stocks of Irish Moss off PEI are decreasing and the yields are not nearly as large as they once were. However, new developments in the industry are giving fishermen a glimmer of hope for brighter days ahead. There has been a connection between Irish Moss and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which could lead to more study into the plant that is such a large part of the lives of those who live in western PEI.