MACHIAS — A lawsuit filed in Washington County Superior Court last month could bring an answer to a legal question that has vexed Maine landowners, seaweed harvesters and the Department of Marine Resources for decades.
Three owners of Washington County shorefront property have filed suit against Acadian Seaplants Ltd., a Canadian company that is Maine’s largest rockweed harvester, asking the court to declare that rockweed belongs to the owners of the intertidal flats on which it grows. The landowners have also asked the court for an injunction to prevent Acadian from harvesting rockweed on their properties — two parcels of land in Pembroke on Cobscook Bay and Roque Island and its surrounding archipelago located between Chandler and Englishman bays in the town of Jonesport.
“The plaintiffs are motivated to have the question answered,” Portland attorney Gordon R. Smith said Tuesday. “Who owns the rockweed?”
Until recently, nobody seemed to question who owned the rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) that flourishes on the intertidal flats along much of Maine’s 3,000-plus-mile coastline.
Slippery when wet, smelly when dead and decomposing, the slimy seaweed was sometimes shipped to factories in Rockland or elsewhere to be processed into ingredients for a variety of products including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics or nutritional supplements for humans, animals and plants.
Mostly rockweed was used by bait dealers to keep sandworms and blood worms moist and wriggling, as one of the traditional components of a beachside lobster bake or, by small boys to slip down the back of a sister’s bathing suit.
In the past dozen years or so, the ownership of rockweed has become a contentious issue.
In 2014, the last year for which DMR has published figures, a handful of licensed harvesters have landed some 17.7 million pounds of seaweed in Maine. “At least 90 percent” of that harvest is rockweed, according to the department, and all of that rockweed was cut in the intertidal zone — where it grows exclusively, attached to the sea bottom by what scientists call the plant’s “holdfast” — between the low and high tide lines.
None of the landowners is new to Maine.
The plaintiffs include brothers Carl E. Ross and Kenneth W. Ross, both Calais natives, and the Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corp. Each of the brothers owns shorefront land off Garnet Head Road in Pembroke. According to their attorney, Gordon R. Smith, of Portland, their family has owned the land for about 100 years.
The corporation has held Roque Island and its neighbors for the benefit of members of the Gardner family, which first acquired an interest in the island in 1806, since 1940.
The owner of Roque Island claims that, on or about last Oct. 5, two boats harvested rockweed from the intertidal zone located at the north end of Squire Point without permission. According to the complaint, at least one of those boats was registered to Acadian.
The activities in Cobscook Bay — the only state waters in which the location of proposed rockweed harvesting is subject to review by DMR or the amount of rockweed that may be harvested from any specific area is limited — were apparently more extensive.
According to the complaint, DMR gave Acadian exclusive authority to harvest rockweed in the area of the bay where the Rosses’ properties are located from 2009 to 2013 and again last year. During the summer of 2012, Acadian allegedly harvested rockweed from intertidal flats owned by Carl Ross. On three days last June, at least two boats, one of them registered to Acadian, harvested rockweed from the flats owned by Kenneth Ross.
In 2014, DMR adopted a rockweed Fishery Management Plan that describes the ecology of the plant, its role as a nursery for juvenile aquatic animals and a variety of other environmental factors. Among other issues, the plan discusses how rapidly rockweed regenerates after it is harvested to a minimum height of 16 inches.
Many of those issues remain contentious, but their resolution is irrelevant to the current litigation, according to the attorney who filed the case. The central question is whether rockweed, like timber, belongs to the owner of the land on which it grows or, more like shellfish, is subject to a public trust and belongs to the state.
“Our focus is getting a declaration of who owns intertidal rockweed,” Smith said.
“Our goals are quite simple and straightforward. This is a property case and we’re trying to clarify the law.”