With mounting concern about the effects of climate change on the Gulf of Maine fishery, little progress has been made in assessing the ecological impact of harvesting ascophyllum nodosum, better known as rockweed.
Seaweed harvesting along Maine’s craggy 3,000-mile coastline has been going for years on a small but growing scale. While prices paid at the dock are minimal — two cents a pound in 2014, the same price paid 50 years ago — only a small fraction of the harvest is sold raw. The majority of rockweed that is hand cut and gathered wet by crews in small boats is later dried, ground and sold as a component of wholesale and retail products that include food supplements, fertilizers and animal feed products.
Collectively those value-added products are worth $20 million per year, making rockweed and other seaweed species indigenous to Gulf of Maine tidal zones “one of Maine’s most valuable marine resources,” according to a Maine Department of Marine Resource fact sheet. The 1964 harvest weighed in at 2.5 million pounds, with a value of $43,663, compared to a 2014 harvest of 17.7 million pounds worth $368,000.
A sometimes contentious debate between Maine’s few commercial rockweed harvesters and seaweed conservationists has been raging for years. Commercial harvesters claim the cutting techniques and technology they employ allow regeneration of rockweed harvested within shoreline intertidal zones, the areas between the high-tide and low-tide waterlines. Intertidal zones are considered by conservationists to be old-growth underwater forests that provide both habitat and sustenance to as many as 150 species of seabirds, shorebirds, ducks, fish and invertebrates important to commercial fishing, including young lobsters.
The epicenter of the debate has been Washington County, specifically in response to rockweed harvesting within Cobscook Bay. The concerns of shoreline property owners there prompted creation by the “Rockweed Coalition” of a “no-cut registry” that asks rockweed harvesters not to cut rockweed along tidal areas that abut the shorelines of those listed on the registry. There are currently 568 property owners on that registry, scattered over 12 seaside towns in Washington County. The registry is updated every few weeks and sent to commercial rockweed harvesters, who have more than less steered clear of the shoreline properties on the list.
Muddying the debate is the fact that it is yet to be determined if rockweed harvesting within intertidal areas abutting private property is legal, without owner consent or compensation. While the legal right of the public to harvest shellfish, wrinkles and worms from intertidal zones that front private property is well established in Maine law, there is no legally established right to harvest seaweed. While the Maine Department of Marine Resources licenses rockweed harvesters and collects a licensing fee, it does so with this legal limbo caveat: “The holder of this license and any property owners must be aware that Maine’s common law (meaning state law developed through court decisions) is not clear as to whether seaweed located in the intertidal zone (defined as the shores, flats or other land between the high and low water mark) is owned by the public generally or by the upland property owner. Therefore, since ownership of the seaweed in the intertidal zone is an unsettled question that only Maine courts can definitively answer, the State of Maine takes no position on (1) whether the public may harvest seaweed from those areas without interfering with the private property rights of the upland owner or (2) whether the upland property owners may prohibit the public harvest of seaweed in those areas.”
Concern about rockweed harvesting now extends to shoreline property owners in the Hancock County villages that comprise Gouldsboro. Alan “Chubba” Kane was surprised to see two rockweed harvesting boats at work off his Gouldsboro Bay shoreline. When he asked both crews to move on, one did, willingly. The other, not so much, claiming a “right” to harvest off Kane’s shoreline. Kane later inspected the areas in which rockweed was cut, finding that some intertidal rocks had been scraped clean in violation of a DMR regulation that harvesters leave at least 16 inches of seaweed attached to those rocks.
Shoreline owners along the Paul Bunyan Road in the Gouldsboro village of Corea also have complained about rockweed harvesters, prompting Town Manager Bryan Kaenrath to send a letter recently to DMR, asking that the Long Mill Cove area be made off-limits to rockweed harvesting. “This has been going on for years, and it’s the town’s position that this is a protected wildlife area that is not supposed to be harvested.” Six weeks later, no response.
“You don’t do something without knowing its long-term impact,” Kane says. “We have compromised our scallop, urchin and cod fisheries so much through over-fishing that we need to err on the side of conservation, instead of let’s do the max and see what happens later.”
(Full disclosure: The author owns shorefront property on Gouldsboro’s West Bay.)
Tom Walsh of Gouldsboro is a medical and science writer.