June 27,  2008  





Harvesting of rockweed in bay stirs debate
by Edward French                   

Eight years ago an anticipated rockweed harvest in Cobscook Bay did not occur following a public call for a moratorium, but this year, with the start of the second season of harvesting after a limited harvest last summer, any outcry has been muted. However, commercial fishermen, landowners and conservationists say they still are concerned about the possible impacts of the harvest on other species in the bay.

Acadian Seaplants Limited, based in Dartmouth, N.S., began the harvest the last week of May, with 16 full-time and eight part-time harvesters, mostly students, using the Pembroke boat landing as a base to cut the seaweed throughout the bay, according to Tim Sheehan of Pembroke, who was hired this year by Acadian Seaplants as the local resource manager. Sheehan recruited students at the University of Maine at Machias and Maine Maritime Academy, including environmental science, marine biology majors and small vessel operators. Along with the students, half a dozen area residents are also harvesting.

Harvesters receive $50 a bag, which is about a ton of rockweed, and they're able to make between $100 and $300 a day. Acadian is paying the harvesters about $10,000 a week. The company is looking at harvesting about 3,000 tons this year, Sheehan says, with the season ending in early September. The amount that Acadian harvested last year is not being released by the company. The rockweed is taken by truck or barge to Acadian's processing plant in Pennfield, N.B.

The harvesters are using 16 small boats and specially designed rakes with cutting blades. A guide on the blade keeps harvesters from being able to cut the rockweed too close to the plant's holdfast.

Julie Keene, a fisherman from Trescott, believes that the majority of commercial fishermen around Cobscook Bay are opposed to the harvesting of rockweed. Fishermen and conservationists are concerned because the seaweed provides essential habitat for many species, including fish, lobsters, sea urchins, periwinkles and clams, during their life cycles. "It's so sad C we're trying to protect this bay and this way of life C for the state to allow this to happen," says Keene. Acadian representatives had asked the Cobscook Bay Fishermen's Association, at a meeting in December 2006, to vote in support of the harvest, but no vote was taken.

In 2000-01, when a rockweed harvest was expected to begin, the Quoddy Regional Land Trust (QRLT) began a registry of landowners who do not want rockweed harvested on their land. Along with property belonging to about a dozen landowners, the QRLT's lands and easements are also on the registry. In addition, the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge is prohibiting rockweed harvest on its lands. Alan Brooks, executive director of the QRLT, says landowners who would like to be included in the registry should contact QRLT and the information will be passed on to Acadian.

According to Linda Theriault, director of public and government relations for Acadian Seaplants, the company is respecting any landowner requests not to harvest on their property. However, Sheehan had not yet seen the registry kept by QRLT.

Fred Gralenski of Pembroke relates an incident that happened on June 20 on his property, in which he says the harvesters were uncooperative. Gralenski, who had previously signed the QRLT registry indicating he did not want rockweed harvested on his property, says that four boats arrived like "a swarm of locusts descending on our property." He asked one of the harvesters to leave, since they were on private property. That harvester did leave and went and spoke to the harvesters in two of the other boats. Those boats didn't leave, and Gralenski spoke with another harvester, who asked him how much property he owns. The second harvester then left, and Gralenski approached a third one, who seemed to ignore him. Gralenski says he lost his temper at that point and ordered him to get off his property. That harvester left, and Gralenski asked the fourth one to also leave. "This is my property," he says, noting that his deed indicates he owns down to mean low tide. "They should have asked first." Gralenski says, to illustrate his point, that he's tempted to go up on the property owned by the head of Acadian Seaplants and take down the trees in his front yard and sell them as firewood.

According to Peter Thayer, a marine scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), a landowner's prohibition that harvesting not occur on his property may not necessarily apply to seaweed, since rockweed may be considered a public resource. A few years ago, the Maine Seaweed Council, a coalition of seaweed industry representatives, seaweed farmers and researchers, hired a public trust attorney who analyzed court cases pertaining to property rights of seaweed in Maine and concluded that harvesters of any seaweed that is attached to rocks must comply with state laws but need not seek permission of any riparian landowners. However, the DMR did add language to its seaweed harvesting licenses stating that the license does not grant the right to harvest in certain places. Although the seaweed council argues that the language is not legal or necessary, the Maine Attorney General's office has recommended that the statement remain on the licenses.

Possible impacts

“My basic problem is I feel this is detrimental to the bay," says Gralenski. He asks, even if the seaweed grows back, whether the animals that use the rockweed for habitat will be able to survive. "We have to be on the side of conservation, and even then we can make drastic mistakes."

"We are impacting the resource, but we're doing it with a license and with DMR's guidance," says Sheehan. "I don't do anything that's raping and pillaging." He likens the harvest to cutting the grass or passive aquaculture, since the rockweed grows back. He notes that rockweed breaks over during the winter and is washed ashore in large mats, and no one is concerned about that natural process. "I've done my homework. I'm a biologist and an educator," he points out. "It's something I'd like to see my boys and my daughter do C rake seaweed here."

Alan Brooks, though, says that because the state does not have rockweed biomass estimates and regrowth rates, the DMR will not know if any overharvesting is occurring until it is too late. "The ecological impact on other species could be great."

In 2000, QRLT had submitted petitions with 540 signatures calling for a moratorium pending an environmental impact study of the effects of harvesting rockweed and the species that depend on it, but the moratorium was not supported by the DMR. The state did increase the minimum cutting height from 12 inches to 16 inches that year, but the state's only other requirement is that harvesting reports be filed with the DMR. While the company has been filing those reports, Thayer is not aware of a harvest plan having been filed by Acadian with the state agency. The filing of a plan is not required, and he notes that previously the company had filed a plan that Acadian believed was in confidence. However, since it was a public document, the DMR gave it to the Conservation Law Foundation, when that organization requested a copy.

Thayer notes that, while the state has not conducted a biomass assessment of the rockweed in Cobscook Bay and does not have any restrictions on the amount that can be harvested, biomass assessments would require a great deal of manpower, and the cutting height restriction allows for regrowth of the plant. He comments, "The good thing is, all these people want the weed to keep growing."

Acadian's resource scientist, Raul Ugarte, has conducted biomass assessments for the company, according to Thayer. According to Sheehan, Cobscook Bay has been divided into about 25 sectors by the company, and Acadian has set a limit of 25% of the biomass as the total allowable harvest per sector. Sheehan says the limit in New Brunswick, where Acadian also harvests, is 17%. Also in the province, a formal harvest and management plan must be submitted annually by the company to the government prior to any harvesting, and the plan must be approved by the federal and provincial government. Areas have been set aside where no harvesting is allowed, and a total annual harvest limit is set. Ninety percent of the rockweed resource in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is under licensed management, with companies holding licensed territories and paying royalties to the government based on the quantities harvested. Brooks believes that Maine should adopt a similar management plan, with the leasing of areas, so that the state could determine responsibility if overharvesting occurs.

The Maine Seaweed Council has been working for a number of years on developing a rockweed management plan that would require harvesters to submit a harvesting plan with a biomass assessment to DMR, but the group has been sidetracked by the legal issue of access to the intertidal area, according to Thayer.

This summer, the DMR is funding a study to be conducted in Cobscook Bay to find out what other species are being removed when rockweed is harvested. The study will be conducted by Thomas Trott of the Suffolk University's Friedman Lab in Edmunds and Peter Larsen of the Bigelow Lab in West Boothbay Harbor. Acadian will assist with the project. The study, though, will not be looking at the long-term effects on species that use the rockweed for protective habitat.


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