COBSCOOK BAY, Maine — Chouan Strongin shoots her seaweed rake over the side of her dory, catching the tops of rockweed plants in its tines and then slicing it with the blade below. With a twist, Strongin captures the seaweed she has just cut and flips it into her boat.
This is hard work. Salt coats her legs and the sun beats down. Every hour or so, she must stop to resharpen the rake blade. When her boat is full — so full it can barely be seen — she will motor across the bay, unload it, pack the harvest into nets, tie each net off and start all over again.
For Strongin and 14 others in Cobscook Bay, harvesting seaweed is their employment.
But for some bay landowners and others, controversy continues to swirl around the harvesting, which has been going on in the bay since 2000.
Industry regulations by the Maine Department of Marine Resources took effect for the first time last June, and although opponents say conditions around the yearly harvest are much better than in the past, they maintain the harvesting still should be banned.
“It’s called ‘fishing down the food web,’” Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley said Friday. A Cornell University biologist, Seeley has been conducting research for 25 years on predator-prey interaction in rockweed.
“We began by taking from the top,” she said. “Now all the cod are gone. We got all the way down to the urchins and we blew that. Now we are down to the plants. It is a really bad thing.”
Seeley works with the Maine Rockweed Coalition, a group of conservationists, property owners, biologists, fishermen and others who support a moratorium on rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay. The group was instrumental in installing state regulations that went into effect June 8 and map out how much seaweed can be harvested, where it can be taken, and how much must be left. The regulations include a registry for landowners to halt any harvesting on their land, as coastal property owners own to the low-water mark.
The coalition maintains that the rockweed is home to 30 species of fish, snails and other sea life.
“They count on this habitat,” Seeley said. “Seaweed harvesting is not sustainable. It makes absolutely no sense.”
But for the seven harvesters in Cobscook Bay, eight more at Jonesport and another 16 off Grand Manan, the harvest means a weekly paycheck of $1,000 to $1,500. A good harvester, Strongin said, can cut 5 tons of rockweed a day at $43 a ton.
For Rex Hunter, vice president of resources at Acadian Seaplants — a 28-year-old Nova Scotia-based company conducting the harvest — the seaweed is the base for fertilizer and livestock feed supplements.
To boost profitability, the company is investigating expanding its harvesting area to the entire Maine coast, Hunter said.
For Dr. Raul Ugarte, Acadian Seaplants’ resident scientist, the harvest is pure farming. He maintains that only the very tops of the rockweed are harvested and more than 16 inches of the plant is left to regenerate.
“It’s like a land farmer cutting his hay, only we leave most of the plant,” Ugarte said. “We will never harvest more than 17 percent of the total biomass.”
Canada, Maine operations
On a crisp, sunny September day, Ugarte and Hunter took several journalists on a tour of the harvesting operation.
Eagles flew overhead and seabirds gathered on the shore, watching the harvesters dip their rakes into the water. The seaweed was piled high in their dories and taken to a floating platform where it was unloaded, packed into net bags, marked with each harvester’s tag and tied off.
The bundles of seaweed, each weighing about a ton, will float until the barge comes twice a week. The nets are loaded onto the barge and taken to Canada where they are unloaded and taken to Pennfield, New Brunswick. Here the company has purchased a former airport and the seaweed is strewn on the runway — 1,000 tons at a time — to dry.
The company’s processing facility there turns the seaweed into livestock feed supplements and fertilizer.
“We have found that the supplements can slow down the stress on cows and other livestock in heat-stressed areas,” Hunter said.
The company recently opened an office and training facility on Route 1 in Pembroke.
“To make money in Maine, we want to expand beyond Jonesport and Cobscook Bay,” Hunter said. “We are looking at the entire coastline of Maine, looking at the biomass perspective. We are not investing in other areas for several years. We are just investigating expansion now.”
Acadian Seaplants maintains that the harvest has been going on in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for 50 years in peaceful coexistence with coastal residents and other fisheries.
“Hand-harvesting rockweed is very passive, and the harvesters generally work unnoticed by residents,” Hunter said. Harvesters work in designated areas and for only a few hours with each tide while the seaweed is floating.
“It is the very nature of the harvest that precludes the harvester from taking too much from a specific area,” Hunter said.
Seeley said that although the company has been respecting conservation areas and landowners whose names are on the no-harvest registry, damage is still evident.
“I can show you whole areas where there is quite extensive short-cutting, where areas have been laid bare,” Seeley said.
She explained that rockweed uses a disclike structure to hold fast to rocks. “In some areas of the bay, the plants don’t invest much energy in their holdfast. In the upper bay, for example, the water just kind of oozes in and out,” she said. In some places, Seeley maintained, the harvesting has caused the holdfast to separate from the rock, killing the plant.
Seeley said there also are continuing issues with harvesting that is taking place on landowners’ property above the low-water mark.
“We have seen harvesters just lock on an area and return day after day,” she said.
Seeley said that if a plant is cut to 6 inches — and she said this is happening frequently — it will regenerate only 54 percent of that height.
“It will never get back to the height that it was originally,” she said. “It will never get long again and will always be short and bushy.”
David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the Marine Patrol division responsible for monitoring the Cobscook Bay harvest has not received a single complaint about short-cutting this year.
“I have heard that some people are not happy,” Etnier said Friday, “but we’ve never received a short-cutting complaint.” He said that cutting below 16 inches is a violation of the regulations and there is a process for dealing with that but a complaint must be filed first.
Seeley admits this year has been an improvement over previous seasons.
“It has been a large improvement,” she said. “The conservation and rockweed registry areas have been respected. The key will be if it continues.”
Seeley said a primary objection to the harvest by most coalition members is that since the landowner owns the resource, the harvesters should be paying landowners a fee for the rockweed they remove and sell, or should be not harvesting anywhere they do not have permission to harvest. They now harvest anywhere until they are advised not to, she said.
Just the idea of a further expansion of the harvest surprises Seeley.
“New Hampshire doesn’t allow it at all; Oregon doesn’t allow it at all. It should not be permitted here at all,” she said.