MACHIAS, Maine — While four companies — twice as many as last year — submitted plans to harvest rockweed in Cobscook Bay this summer, the number of residents that have signed up to halt harvesting at their oceanfront properties has tripled.
Between already protected lands, such as state-owned and conservation property, and the high number of private landowners on the no-harvest list, nearly the entire bay has requested protection. Last summer, 100 properties signed on to the voluntary registry. This year, 306 properties are listed.
“If the harvesters abide by the no-cut requests, there will be no place for them to go,” David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Tuesday. “It is almost a de facto moratorium.”
The big question this summer is whether the harvesters will honor the no-cut registry.
The Maine Rockweed Registry is a voluntary service maintained by the Rockweed Coalition that lists property owners who object to the harvesting and have asked that no cutting occur in front of their properties.
With environmental disasters grabbing headlines, some registrants say it is vital to protect the bay.
“I have to rely on what reputable scientists tell me, especially with the example of the current catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and other indications we are squandering our oceans and marine resources, perhaps irremediably,” Gail Menzel of Pembroke said when registering her property.
Carl Ross of Calais has a 100-year-old family-owned homestead on the bay in Pembroke. He said Tuesday there haven’t been enough studies of the rockweed harvesting to determine whether animals and fish in the intertidal zone and beyond might be affected adversely.
“We want assurances that extensive cutting of the rockweed will not damage the ecology of the bay,” he said.
Just as registering for a no-cut zone is voluntary for property owners, it is also 100 percent voluntary for a harvester to respect the no-cut request.
Just who owns the intertidal property and whether the harvesters have the right to take the rockweed has been hotly debated for more than a decade.
Rockweed harvesting, which began in the bay in 2000, takes place in the intertidal areas. The rockweed is used for fertilizer and cattle feed.
Some property deeds are clear that ownership is to either the high-water or low-water marks, said Etnier, and state law says the intertidal areas are open to all the people of Maine for fishing. Harvesters submit their plans to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“The question arises as to whether harvesting seaweed is fishing,” Etnier said. The only way the debate will be solved is through the courts, he said, and no one has pursued the issue through a lawsuit.
“It is a gray area, and both sides are convinced they are right,” Etnier said. He said the state does not enforce or post the registry, preferring to let the industry work with landowners.
“The state has not entered into this question of ownership. Everyone’s understanding is different,” he said.
Proponents of the harvest claim that rockweed is a sustainable resource, that it is being harvested responsibly and that the environment is not stressed.
Opponents, including the hundreds of members of the Rockweed Coalition, claim the harvesting is harming the delicate environmental balance in Cobscook Bay, destroying critical habitat and ignoring landowners’ wishes to leave the bay undisturbed.
The question for those no-cut residents this summer is whether the harvesters will honor the voluntary registry.
All but one of the four harvesting companies that have submitted applications to DMR are silent on whether they will honor the registry.
In its 31-page application to DMR, Acadian Seaplants Ltd. of New Brunswick and Perry states, “Harvesters will be instructed to voluntarily respect the no-cut registry recommendations on intertidal areas adjacent to private land that is properly identified until permission is granted.”
Acadian Seaplants was the largest harvester in Cobscook Bay last summer. The company did not return a call Tuesday to confirm their intentions.
“I can’t really talk about that yet,” harvester George “Butch” Harris of Eastport said Tuesday when asked if he will avoid no-cut areas. He said he had not made a final decision about honoring the registry.
Patrick Driscoll of Yarmouth applied for the first time this year to harvest the bay, stating in his application that he would use mechanical harvesting.
Driscoll said he would not be harvesting until late July or August, but was not aware of the Rockweed Coalition’s map and the location of the no-cut properties. He said he had not made up his mind about honoring the requests, but hinted that it wouldn’t make a difference.
“Rockweed belongs to the people of Maine,” he said, “not the landowners.”
Another new harvester in the bay, Robert Morse of North American Kelp of Waldoboro, did not return calls for comment.