GOULDSBORO — Residents who keep a close eye on birds in Long Mill Cove and Pond are asking state and local officials to protect rockweed from what the property owners perceive as overly aggressive harvesting.
Known for its familiar pea-size air bladders, rockweed reproduces March through June in the intertidal zone, protected coves and open areas.
The seaweed is harvested and processed as a nutrient for plants and animals.
Garry Levin, who lives on Paul Bunyan Road in Corea, a portion of which overlooks Long Mill Cove, said he and his wife and neighbors have noticed a decrease in migrating shorebirds the past three to four years.
“Rockweed harvesters come in at low tide in flat bottom boats and just rake it all in,” Levin said. “We’re seeing raking in much greater proportion than ever before. Last summer there were two to three boats coming in every week. Before that it was one or two times in a summer.”
The Paul Bunyan Road Association, whose purview includes the cove, on Nov. 14 made a presentation before the Department of Marine Resources’ Rockweed Working Group.
At the Legislature’s direction, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher formed the group to evaluate whether commercial rockweed harvesting has an unreasonable impact on sensitive wildlife.
The group is due to present its recommendations to the commissioner in the spring.
In the meantime, the concerned Corea residents have asked their selectmen if there is anything the board can do to ensure that the Long Mill Cove and Pond area is a “no cut” zone because it was designated a Special Wildlife Habitat in 2007.
The rationale for the special designation is that the cove and pond host six to eight rare shorebird species that are migrating to South America from mid-July to mid-September
A Paul Bunyan Road Association member, David Lefever, said residents are prohibited from disturbing or removing rockweed in the cove area to avoid damaging roosting areas, particularly in the summer.
“Seaweed harvesters the past three summers have removed large amounts of seaweed during the roosting season,” Lefever said.
Selectman Roger Bowen wrote to the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) and asked what power the town has to regulate seaweed harvesting.
MMA staff attorney Amanda Meader said it is unclear under Maine law whether seaweed in the intertidal zone is owned by the public or by the upland property owner.
The intertidal zone is defined as the shores, flats or other land between the high and low water mark.
Meader said adopting a local ordinance would put the town of Gouldsboro on a “slippery slope.”
The authority to regulate rockweed harvesting, she said, remains with the courts or the Legislature.
“Certainly the town may choose to spend the time and money to draft, adopt and defend an ordinance that regulates rockweed harvesting,” Meader wrote in an email to Bowen.
The selectmen are reluctant to head in that direction because of potential legal costs.
Board Chairman Dana Rice said he did speak on the phone with Commissioner Keliher.
Bowen then asked that a letter be sent to Keliher as well. The board decided Jan. 29 to ask Keliher for an update within one month.
Shep Erhart, president of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin, said his harvesters cut very little rockweed — no more than 200 pounds a year — because it is intended for use as a nutrient for plants and animals.
“All of ours is sold to humans,” he said. “We harvest low-volume, high-value seaweed.”
These include, among others, dulse, kelp, alaria, laver, sea lettuce, bladderwrack and Irish moss.
Erhart said the Maine Seaweed Council recommends that seaweed harvest be limited to no more than 30 percent of the bed — but the yardstick varies with each seaweed species.
“I tell my harvesters to pay attention and see what the bed looks like,” he said. “Thirty percent might be too much.”
Dulse, he said, can grow five inches in two weeks. Nori grows quickly as well.
“You can harvest up to 75 percent of the nori you see,” Erhart said.
The state allows residents to harvest up to 50 pounds of seaweed daily for personal use.
Anyone who wishes to harvest beyond this limit or for commercial use must obtain a license from the Department of Marine Resources.
The “Harvester’s Field Guide to Maine Seaweeds” states that rockweed may be harvested in small amounts year-round.
But most harvesting occurs in the summer after the reproductive cycle is completed.
“The key to sustainability is not the method of harvest so much as the amount of the harvest and the care of the harvester,” according to the guide.