Sides divided on rockweed harvesting

Posted Sept. 10, 2008, at 8:26 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:20 a.m.

EASTPORT, Maine — The goal was to reach across the bay where rockweed has been harvested this summer to see if a dialogue could be opened between the Maine Seaweed Council and the opponents of harvesting.

But by the time the two-hour meeting at the Boat School ended Tuesday night, the two sides remained far apart.

Acadian Seaplants of Dart-mouth, Nova Scotia, spent weeks this summer harvesting rockweed in Cobscook Bay. That harvest led to an outcry from fishermen, clammers and property owners up and down the bay.

The Seaweed Council was in town Tuesday to try to calm some of those fears.

Gavin Hood, president of the council, told the nearly 30 peo-le at the meeting that communication was necessary so the two sides could better understand what was being done in Cobscook Bay.

Hood, who runs a harvesting company in Brunswick, said it was the goal of the council to maintain a sustainable resource for generations to come.

“We can promote a good strong resource in the state by all of us working together,” he said.

According to its mission statement, the council’s intent is to protect and promote the sustainable use of macroalgae harvested from and grown in the coastal waters of the state; to develop and maintain a united voice; to address regula-tory, legislative and public con-cerns affecting the seaweed industry; and to promote a sprit of cooperation among its mem-bership.

For months now, opponents in Washington County have been calling for a moratorium on the harvesting of rockweed — the common brownish-green, stringy seaweed peppered with air bladders — in Cobscook Bay until studies are done on the impact the harvest could have on the overall health of the bay.

Raul Ugarte of Acadian Sea-plants addressed those con-cerns Tuesday night by refer-ring to studies in Canada and other places which demon-strated that the removal of seaweed had no impact on the environment. He said the largest harvest in Canada was in southwest Nova Scotia, which is also home to the province’s largest lobster grounds.

That didn’t seem to placate those Washington County resi-dents whose livelihoods depend on Cobscook Bay.

Lubec fisherman Leo Murray wondered why studies in Cob-scook Bay had not been done before the harvest began. “This is our garden,” he said of the bay.

A state study is under way on the animals and plants that live within the canopy of seaweed. The Department of Marine Re-sources-funded study is expected to be completed by spring 2009.

Ugarte also talked about what was happening with the harvest in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well as Cobscook Bay.

Rockweed is used in every-day products including foods, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, beverages, animal feeds and organic fertilizers.

Ugarte showed pictures of open-hull boats where harvest-ers using a long-handled cut-ting tool designed by Acadian Seaplants cut off the floating tops of the rockweed plants, which are attached to rocks in the intertidal zone.

Once harvested, the rock-weed is taken to the company’s plant in Pennfield, New Brunswick.

Council members compared the rockweed harvest to cutting grass.

Ugarte said the company had a management plan for rock-weed harvesting in Canada.

“Your management plan doesn’t inspire confidence be-cause people [in Maine] can’t see the plan,” said marine biologist Robin Seeley. Seeley works with the Shoals Island Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island.

“We will show it to you,” Ugarte responded.

There also was discussion about who owns the intertidal zone where the rockweed is harvested — the state or the landowner — and about the large amounts of rockweed floating (also known as drift pack) in the bay.

Fishermen are worried be-cause the loose rockweed is getting tangled in boat propellers and is dangerous.

Council members agreed there appeared to be an inordinate amount of rockweed floating in Maine waters, but blamed it on nature rather than on the harvest.

Few who attended the meeting seemed to accept that idea.

As more questions were asked about harvesting and its impact on the bay, Rex Hunter of Acadian Seaplants pointed out that Cobscook Bay needed an advocate in Maine to audit what was happening on the bay. He said that New Brunswick fisheries officers fulfilled that role in Canada.

One audience member grumbled that the state of Maine didn’t have that kind of money.

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