"Our goal tonight is information sharing," stated Gavin Hood, president of the Maine Seaweed Council. The council's board meeting was held September 9 at The Boat School in Eastport and attracted 24 participants. "I want to get it so everybody from both sides can talk to each other," commented Hood.
The harvesting of rockweed in Cobscook Bay last year and this year has raised concern among area residents who make their living from the bay, area property owners and conservationists. Many members of this group expressed disappointment with what they view as lack of action by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) in accurately determining how much seaweed is being taken out of Maine. Fishermen and conservationists expressed concern about the harvesting of rockweed, which provides a protective canopy for other species such as fish, clams and periwinkles. Peter Thayer, a marine scientist with the DMR, told the group that the DMR is funding a study being conducted in Cobscook Bay this year to find out what other species are being removed with the harvesting of rockweed. The study is being conducted by Thomas Trott of the Suffolk University's Friedman Lab in Edmunds and Peter Larsen of the Bigelow Lab in West Boothbay Harbor.
Dr. Raul Ugarte, a scientist with the company that has been harvesting the rockweed, Acadian Seaplants Limited, based in Dartmouth, N.S., presented a slide show on the science of harvesting rockweed, which is most abundant in the intertidal zone. Commercially, rockweed is mostly used for animal feed and fertilizer. Other forms of seaweed are used for stabilizers in human food. Vertebrates and invertebrates and 20 species of fish use the rockweed. According to Ugarte, rockweed is one of the most studied seaweeds. There are seasonal variations in biomass, with the largest biomass occurring in April and the lowest biomass occurring in June. Rockweed can be harvested in small amounts year round, but most harvesting is done during the summer months after the reproductive cycle is completed. Refraining from harvesting until after the spore release and protection of the holdfast is important to regeneration of the plant.
Acadian Seaplants has seaweed harvesting operations in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine, and Acadian's Canadian operations have taken place for substantial period of time. "We have harvested in Nova Scotia for 35 years. We cannot hide the operation."
Acadian Seaplants maintains the percentage of biomass being taken in Cobscook Bay is no more than 17%. However, Melissa Lee of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, noting that one can see it being harvested, commented, "I understand the area cut was at least 60% of the area." Fred Gralenski of Pembroke asked, "If you don't harvest large amounts, where does it go? You are taking a tremendous amount."
Julie Keene of Lubec said the seaweed harvesters can put down anything they want for the amount being harvested. She has concerns for what she says are the last good scallop beds in Maine, located in Cobscook Bay.
Daniel Morehouse of Eastport, a member of the Maine Seaweed Council who has prepared a report on Cobscook Bay rockweed harvest in 2008, writes, "Harvest of Maine's rockweed is not a new topic or endeavor. Generations of rockweed harvesters have plied the coastal areas. Accelerated controversy and potential threat of disadvantage to resources is a recent development." Morehouse believes "a lack of community/public relations with regard to harvest procedures in the Cobscook Bay area appears to be a primary cause of increased public awareness and concomitant negative reaction."
Tim Sheehan of Pembroke, local resource manager of Acadian Seaplants, has recruited students at the University of Maine at Machias, Maine Maritime Academy and some area residents to harvest rockweed. The rockweed collectors are using hand-cutter rakes with no mechanical harvesting being done.
Several people spoke of the increased masses of floating rockweed in the bay and had concerns that the masses of floating rockweed were an indication that excessive amounts of rockweed were being harvested. Acadian representatives said wind, tide and, in the winter, natural scouring of rocks will produce massive amounts of floating rockweed. Natural rockweed floats will not have rake marks.
Leo Murray of Lubec said he was dedicated to enhancement of species. "Why wasn't this meeting held earlier?" Speaking to representatives of the Maine Seaweed Council, he said, "It is a privilege for you to come here. This is our garden. We have managed our garden well. This is our bay. If you want to get along, we have to work together."
Anyone planning to harvest seaweed for more than the daily limit of 50 pounds must obtain a license from the DMR. According to the Maine Seaweed Council's harvest guidelines for Maine seaweeds, it is recognized that improper hand harvesting can lead to over harvesting, and mechanical harvesting has the potential for removal of far more biomass in less time. For this reason, selectivity should be employed regardless of method of harvest, and any form of harvesting should undergo careful scrutiny to verify that it is an environmentally concerned, ecological and sustainable method. Maine DMR regulations require that the lowest lateral branches must be undisturbed and a minimum of 16 inches of the plant must remain above the holdfast.
Bob Morse, a member of the Maine Seaweed Council, said, "We are looking at getting more legislation."
Lea McCarthy, a Trescott property owner, in response to statements made by Acadian Seaplants employees, asked, "If it is sustaining itself, why is it necessary to come to Maine?" A company official said, "We have an aggressive marketing program." McCarthy replied "You or the company are forcing the local fishermen to take a risk. This company is benefiting from Cobscook Bay. What is the benefit for us?" McCarthy wanted to know more about the risk and reward relationship. "We don't know how much seaweed was left this year. Uncertainty is making people upset."
There is also legal uncertainty regarding property rights when taking seaweed, which has led to conflicts in legal interpretation. Maine's laws concerning ownership in the intertidal zone go back to the 1600s.
Rex Hunter, vice president of Acadian Seaplants in Pennfield, says the company is planning a public relations program this fall.