AUGUSTA, Maine — State officials reported Monday that the 2009 rockweed harvesting season in Cobscook Bay went fairly smoothly under new regulations intended to address recent tensions over this small but growing industry in Maine.
The two operations that were licensed to harvest rockweed in Cobscook Bay — Butch Harris and Acadian Seaplants Limited — reported collecting roughly 1,200 tons of the algae that can be found along much of Maine’s rocky coastline.
That equates to less than 4 percent of the total rockweed growing in areas that are open to harvesting in Cobscook Bay and about 2.4 percent of the estimated 50,000 tons of rockweed in the bay.
Earlier this year, new regulations went into effect that, among other things, limited how much rockweed could be harvested as well as created a registry and maps of “conserved” lands where harvesting is prohibited.
The regulations were created in response to some Cobscook Bay landowners concerned that harvesting of the algae could affect the bay’s ecological balance and harm organisms that live in and around rockweed.
But industry representatives accuse opponents of spreading misinformation about the impacts of rockweed harvesting, which has been going on in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes for decades. Rockweed is commonly used as a supplement in animal feed, as a health food item, as packing material in lobster shipments and as a fertilizer.
David Etnier, deputy commissioner at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told lawmakers Monday that there were two documented violations during the season.
In one instance, a harvester was issued a warning by Marine Patrol officers for working in an area off-limits to harvesting. While some individuals have criticized the Department of Marine Resources for not issuing a notice of violation, Etnier said warnings are often issued for first violations.
Etnier also described the list of conserved lands under the new law as “a moving target” and said the department plans to release more detailed maps this year.
Acadian Seaplants also acknowledged harvesting more than the 17 percent allowed under the law in a particular area. Overall, Acadian harvested much less than it was allowed under its permit, he said.
Marine Patrol officers and Department of Marine Resources officials also looked into allegations that harvesters had cut the plants too short in some areas but found only a few potential, minor violations.
“They were small areas and nothing egregious,” Etnier told members of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.
Two separate studies were conducted in Cobscook Bay to gauge potential impacts from harvesting.
One study, by researchers at Suffolk University and Bigelow Laboratory, found that rockweed grows back shorter and bushier after being cut. But contrary to some concerns raised by harvesting opponents, the researchers did not find that harvesting dramatically changed the abundance or diversity of other organisms, including periwinkles.
The second study suggested that harvesting activities would not have a significant impact on periwinkle populations in the bay.
Linda Mercer, director of the Department of Marine Resources Bureau of Research Management, said both of those studies examined only short-term effects of harvesting. Additional research by the department is planned.
Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, said he would like to see additional, longer-term research on how harvesting affects the growth of rockweed and the health of other organisms. Damon, who is co-chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, described the 2009 regulations as a “cautioned and reasoned approach to the harvest.”
Rep. Robert Eaton, D-Sullivan, said he was pleased with the openness of the harvesting companies.
“I am absolutely convinced that this is a sustainable harvest,” Eaton said. “I think history proves that.”
Raul Ugarte, research scientist at Acadian, said the new regulations have not had a major impact on his company because they already operate under similar rules in Canada. What has affected his company is what he called misinformation and cherry-picking of information by some opponents of harvesting.
“We asked for regulation,” Ugarte said after the meeting. “We need regulation. It is the best way to sustain our resources.”
None of the groups or individuals critical of rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay spoke at Monday’s committee meeting. While acknowledging progress has been made on the issue, harvesting opponents have said there are still problems occurring that should be addressed.