MACHIAS, Maine — Complaints about rockweed harvesters in Cobscook Bay are nothing like they were last year before the state Department of Marine Resources instituted new regulations, but the tensions between the harvesters and those opposing the harvest still are running high.
Rockweed is used as a supplement in animal food and as fertilizer, but opponents of the harvest operations maintain the cutting changes the sea environment by creating low-growing bushy plants rather than allowing the natural long growth of the plant. Regulations require harvesters to leave at least 17 inches of the original plant.
Last week, DMR personnel issued a written warning to a harvester for taking rockweed from a protected area, which was one of several instances of illegal harvesting, according to a conservation land monitor who works in the area.
Meanwhile, officials were investigating whether the shooting of an outboard motor on an empty harvesting boat was accidental or deliberate.
The damaged motor was found on a boat tied to a float that Acadian Seaplants of New Brunswick maintains on the water in Cobscook Bay for unloading rockweed from the harvesters’ boats.
Maine Marine Patrol Officer Russell Wright said one shot pierced the motor of the boat and that no one was on the float or near the boat when the shot was fired. The damage was discovered the next morning when workers returned to their boats.
“We are not sure it was deliberate,” Wright said, adding the incident remains under investigation.
In the case of harvesting in a closed area, Marine Patrol Lt. Alan Talbot said one harvester working for Acadian Seaplants was given a written warning, rather than a summons and fine, partly because the new regulations are so confusing. The regulations stipulate from where and how much rockweed can be taken, but the bay is a patchwork of areas where harvesting is and is not allowed. Because the rules can change within just a few feet, harvesters find it challenging to stay in compliance.
The new regulations went into effect in June.
“Whenever there is a new law, new regulations, especially one like this that is so confusing, we feel it is more fair to give a warning,” Talbot said.
“If a person is educated by the Marine Patrol, and then reoffends, it also provides for a stronger court case,” Talbot said.
Wright, who patrols Cobscook Bay, said other than the warning he issued to the single harvester, it has overall been “an excellent season. The harvesters have done an excellent job. They are very willing to work with us.”
Wright said the case of the illegal harvesting, which took place in Straight Bay on Parker Island, which is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, was a “case of a mix-up in maps. I felt it was a very honest mistake.”
The rockweed monitor for MCHT, however, disputes Wright’s version of events.
“I witnessed the removal of rockweed from Parker Island, which belongs to MCHT, and the Carlos or Pine islands, which is a state-owned conservation area, by four rockweed cutters in boats. Rockweed cutting is prohibited at these two conservation sites,” Robin Hadlock-Seeley said this week. Hadlock-Seeley is a researcher with Cornell University whose specialty is the sea life that lives in and under the rockweed. While doing her research in Cobscook Bay, she monitors the MCHT-protected areas. She said she is confused as to why only one warning was issued.
Hadlock-Seeley said that in addition to the cutting violations at Parker and Pine islands, she found and documented cuts that were too short in violation of DMR rules at three sites in Pembroke and Perry on the shores where the rockweed boats had been cutting. She said those alleged violations were reported to DMR.
“What most surprised me, though, was the state issuing a warning rather than a summons for the violation of the conservation areas,” Hadlock-Seeley said. “The new law is very clear that a fine of $1,000 per occurrence would be imposed if conservation areas were cut again this year. Having escaped at least a $4,000 fine, and since the illegally taken rockweed was not confiscated, the individuals and the company doing the cutting probably ended up making money by violating the new law. Not much of a deterrent.”
Wright said he did not witness any of the harvesting violations personally, and since rockweed is not an illegal product, it was not confiscated from the one harvester that was warned. He also said he was not aware of any investigation regarding short-cutting at Pine Island.