Washington County commissioners have added their support to calls for a moratorium on rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay while a scientific study is conducted. At the commission meeting of October 2, Dean Preston, Unorganized Territory (UT) supervisor, told the panel of complaints he heard from fishermen at a shellfish committee meeting September 30 in Edmunds. "10 or 11 clammers expressed their concerns," Preston said, "about the effects on the habitat of shellfish, the unknown effect on the bay and cutting that's closer to the hold fast than the regulation 16 inches."
Preston presides over meetings of the standing committee, which he notes is usually concerned with managing beaches, conservation and licensing issues, mostly related to the local clamming industry. At the recent meeting, he said, fishermen told him they were "amazed to see the bare rocks that formed the horizon of the beach" instead of the seaweed cover they are accustomed to. In addition, he heard stories that harvesters have been cutting in federal land areas. Clammers who use boats, he said, are encountering loose weed in the bay that "immobilizes outboard motors," requiring frequent stops to remove. Several said the size of floating masses of seaweed was "huge enough" to raise concerns that it was hiding obstacles to navigation.
"Many species are damaged or killed in the harvesting process," Preston told commissioners. "If bad 'wrinkles' are tossed back [by the harvesters], and then collected, they could infect the whole bag" gathered by periwinklers. He said, "Much of the rockweed turns back into the bay as habitat, fertilizer, etc. There's just not enough research to support the kind of harvest that's going on."
Julie Keene, a fisherman from Trescott, also addressed the commissioners, calling the harvest "a huge issue, affecting everybody that lives on the bay. It's like the Wild West, with no oversight. They will starve us fishermen out. They're harvesting everything in certain places, yet law enforcement has not written one summons this summer." Keene showed four photographs she said she had taken the previous day and described the images of "ledge that's been stripped, rockweed cut too short."
Chair Chris Gardner, speaking to Keene, said, "From our standpoint, you're absolutely right. We need to slow down. The board of commissioners should take steps to support a slow down of the harvest." Commissioner Kevin Shorey asked, "Can we shut down the harvest like we can shut down clam flats?" Preston replied that the intertidal area is state regulated, and not subject to county control. Commissioner John Crowley noted that a case is "going through the Maine courts" that should settle property rights issues and harvesting.
The commission directed Preston to draft a letter to Governor John Baldacci with a copy to Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe supporting a moratorium on rockweed harvesting pending a scientific study of the issues. Gardner said the letter would also be posted on the county website, <www.washingtoncountymaine.com/commish/>.