Seaweed surcharge hearing draws few people

Posted Nov. 18, 2009, at 1:39 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Just four people attended a public hearing Monday night at the University of Maine at Machias regarding a proposal to add a surcharge to seaweed harvests to fund research, enforcement and monitoring of the industry.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is suggesting that seaweed buyers pay a surcharge of $1.50 per wet ton of seaweed harvested. It would apply to anyone purchasing more than 10 tons annually from harvesters.

Speaking at the hearing were Alan Brooks, associate director of the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, who said the surcharge was too low; and Lee Hudson, president of the Maine Seaweed Council, who was in favor of the rule change.

Brooks said that even if DMR raised the charge to $5 a ton, the revenue still would not raise enough money to adequately monitor and research the rockweed harvest.

“The $1.50 proposed surcharge is far too low,” Brooks said, calling it “not much better than nothing.”

At that amount, Brooks said, based on an average of 5,550 metric tons harvested in 2008, $8,325 would be raised in one year.

“How far will that money go?” he asked. “Not far.”

Brooks said that Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley, a marine biologist with Cornell University who monitors the Cobscook Bay rockweed harvest in the summer months, said an adequate impact survey could cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

“It would take four to five years to pay for one such project, never mind having enough funding for enforcement and monitoring,” Brooks said. He questioned whether DMR picked a surcharge figure based on its budget or one that would be easy for the seaweed industry to live with.

“If the goal is to take several years to get enough funding, Cobscook Bay is under enormous risk,” Brooks said.

Brooks said a $5 surcharge would raise nearly $28,000 annually, which “represents a reasonable shot at getting some work done.”

Commenting by e-mail from New York, Hadlock Seeley said, “The taxpayers of Maine should not have to fund the extra research, management and enforcement needs resulting from the rockweed cutting industry.”

Hudson, however, said her organization favored the $1.50 but believed that DMR needed to rewrite the regulations. Because they affect only seaweed buyers, not processors or harvesters, “a lot of wet tons of rockweed that are landed are exempt.” She also said many companies that purchase dried seaweed also would be exempt.

Hudson also objected to spending all the surcharge funds on rockweed studies when many other seaweed varieties are being harvested.

“You are lumping everyone in together, and that doesn’t seem right,” she said.

Hudson said there are three companies in Maine with buyer’s licenses, and one of those buys only dry seaweed.

Seaweed harvesting regulations set by the Maine Department of Marine Resources took effect for the first time in June, and although opponents say conditions around the yearly harvest are much better than in the past, they maintain the harvesting should be banned. Opponents fear that “short-cutting” of rockweed harms the habitat for sea life and argue that shoreland owners are not reimbursed for seaweed harvested on their property.

Laurice Churchill of the DMR said a second hearing on the surcharge was scheduled to be held in Boothbay Harbor on Tuesday night.

Written comments on the surcharge will be accepted until Nov. 30 and can be mailed to Churchill at Department of Marine Resources, P.O. Box 8, West Boothbay Harbor 04575, or e-mailed to laurice.churchill@maine.gov.

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