Amendment needed to protect Maine’s rockweed

Posted Jan. 24, 2010, at 4:53 p.m.

This all parties agree on: Rockweed and its cousins are the essential component, the sine qua non, of our Maine marine ecosystem and similar systems around the Earth.

Rockweed grows in that space between high and low tide, attached to the rocky edge of land, on ledges and islands off shore. When left alone it attains heights of 10 feet, waving in the high tides like a watery forest. From it dart juvenile fish, lobsters, scallops, one-celled animals and plants. When naturally broken off and floating free in rafts on the surface of the sea it continues to give shelter as well as food and protection as birds feed from it. And finally, when beached at highest tide, it is exquisitely timed to be home to the playing out of an entire life cycle of insects that quickly transform it into a sewage like goo that is, in fact, perfect food for scallops, clams as well as tiny plants and animals when it washes back into the sea.

This nurturing behemoth gets its strength and power not only from the sun but also from that pesky carbon dioxide that it absorbs in great gulps.

Presently, Maine rockweed is being cut by humans from multiple countries with tools ranging from powered suction cutters of great efficiency to hand rakes yielded from small boats and the shore. The taking of small amounts of rockweed for use by local farmers as fertilizer has morphed into a large-scale corporate industry regulated and supervised by no one, a snowballing free for all.

It has swept through Nova Scotia leaving a fishery shocked and unable to rebound and into New Brunswick, where marine scientists sounded the alarm asserting that species that perform such critical functions and link so many other species in an ecosystem should never come under commercial exploitation. They were rolled over but at least were able to slow the progress of this destructive “clear-cutting” as in Nova Scotia limiting it to a percent of the whole on a revolving basis.

Perhaps not grasping the fact that rockweed is a “keystone” species on which the whole marine ecosystem depends, the Maine Legislature adopted the same slight oversight as New Brunswick, the monitoring of compliance to be reported by the cutters themselves — and that only in Cobscook Bay. The remainder of the Maine coast remains prey to the mechanized corporate cutters.

The Department of Marine Resources acknowledges that it does not have the staff to monitor even this limited law — nor the money for research that would look at the effects of the removal of rockweed on the whole ecosystem. Neither will it be possible to arrange for an independent third party to verify amounts of rockweed cut and removed as required by law.

Many Maine people participated in the fishing frenzy for cod, herring, whales, urchins; others were canners and shippers of this bounty. Those still alive are the experts who can testify to what happens when we fail to treat the natural world on which we depend with restraint and kindness. Many still live on the edge of the sea waiting, waiting for it to feed them again, but it will not come again.

Are we doomed to repeat the past? Logic and a concern for future life requires an amendment to this law prohibiting all commercial cutting of rockweed in Maine waters.

Betsy Duncan of Monroe is an environmental advocate.

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