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LUBEC, Maine — Proposed legislation that would explore statewide regulation of the commercial harvesting of seaweed along Maine’s 3,000 miles of craggy coastline has re-energized years of debate over whether cutting rockweed and other species of seaweed should be allowed at all.
Rep. Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, is sponsoring a bill that tasks the state’s commissioner of Marine Resources with developing a statewide approach to seaweed harvest management and to present the plan to the committee before Jan. 14, 2014.
The bill, LD 585, also calls for repealing legislation that in 2009 established the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area 90 as a rockweed conservation effort.
That 2009 legislation requires pre-harvest plans to be filed by would-be harvesters, including crews from Nova Scotia. It also divided the bay in northeastern Washington County into 36 assigned harvest sections, capping the harvest within each sector at 17 percent of the total estimated biomass. The law also established a surcharge of $1.50 per wet ton of seaweed landed, with those funds used to support seaweed research, management and enforcement.
According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the statewide seaweed harvest in 2011 totaled 15.3 million pounds, up from 12.9 million pounds in 2010. That represents the biggest harvest ever, with rockweed accounting for about 90 percent of the seaweed taken and about 90 percent of the rockweed cut within Cobscook Bay.
Harvesters were paid 3 cents a pound in 2011, up from 2 cents a pound the year before. That made the 2011 fresh harvest worth $422,000, up from $323,488 in 2010.
While prices paid at the dock is minimal, the DMR notes that only a small fraction of the harvest is sold raw. The majority of the harvest is dried, ground and sold as components of wholesale and retail products that include food supplements, fertilizers and animal feed products. Collectively those value-added products are worth $20 million per year, making rockweed and other seaweed species indigenous to the Gulf of Maine tidal zones “one of Maine’s most valuable marine resources,” according to a DMR factsheet.
The sometimes contentious debate between commercial harvesters and seaweed conservationists has been raging for years, with harvesters claiming the cutting techniques they employ allow regeneration of rockweed. Conservationists liken the shoreline intertidal zones, where rockweed thrives, to an “old-growth underwater forest” that provides both habitat and sustenance to as many as 150 species of seabirds, shorebirds, ducks, fish and invertebrates, including some species important to commercial fishing.
Rep. Winchenbach said Saturday that, as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, she’s heard both sides make strong cases for their divergent points of view and feels the issue should be resolved.
“I want this bill to bring the two parties — the business side and the conservation side — together to have a conversation about this,” she said. “The conservation side says the rockweed is stripped when it’s raked, while the other side says the process they use is conscious of how to best manage harvesting to protect the resource.”
Asked why her bill calls for repealing the existing 2009 conservation regulations for Cobscook Bay, Winchenbach offered only this response: “That’s a good question,” she said. “And we’ll need to discuss it.”
The introduction of LD 585 recently triggered a 500-signature petition drive by a Lubec-group called “Save Our Seaweed.” As of Saturday afternoon, the group’s website ( http://www.change.org/petitions/save-our-seaweed) showed that 342 people had signed the petition destined for the joint committee.
Those who have signed the petition support this position statement: “I oppose removing the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area law. In light of what the bay now looks like after rockweed harvesting, I ask for a moratorium against any further harvesting of Cobscook and Passamaquoddy Bays. I believe the rockweed (seaweed) is absolutely critical to our local Cobscook / Passamaquoddy Bay fisheries, which includes hundreds of jobs versus the handful of jobs employing seaweed harvesters.”
Among those who have been studying the issue is Robin Hadlock Seeley, a marine ecologist who is a senior research associate at New York’s Cornell University. She has been focused on the marine ecology of Cobscook Bay for 30 years, doing research during her summer stays at the Shoals Marine Laboratory facility on Maine’s Appledore Island, which is southeast of Kittery. She said Saturday that, based on what she’s seen, she supports a rockweed harvest moratorium, as proposed in the petition.
“Members of the public are asking for a moratorium on rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay until there is good science showing that there would be no effects of rockweed harvesting on other fisheries or on the ecosystem,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “Rockweed harvesting has not been certified as ecologically sustainable by any group or agency.
“We know a lot about the impacts of rockweed harvesting on, for example, fish, ducks, periwinkles and the rockweed itself. We know enough now to conclude that rockweed harvesting presents too much risk to fisheries and to coastal ecosystems.
“With all the news about groundfisheries, like cod, in trouble, and the newly realized importance of forage fish to the survival and restoration of groundfisheries, why would we put at risk the marine habitat that supports these fisheries by allowing it to be cut down and processed into agricultural fertilizer and cattle feed supplements? This makes no sense.”
Among those who have signed the “Save Our Seaweed” petition is Shelly Tinker of Whiting, a diver whose niche is underwater photography.
“I’ve been diving in these waters for a long time, and these kelp forests are beautiful,” she said. “I can’t imagine them being gone. They are the beginning of the food chain and provide 70 percent to 80 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Some of these rockweeds are 15 or 16 years old. If they are not properly harvested, they will never grow back.”
Complicating the debate, Seeley points out, is the fact that it has never been determined if rockweed harvesting in intertidal areas abutting private property is legal, without consent or compensation. While the legal right of the public to harvest shellfish, wrinkles and worms from intertidal zones that front private property is well established in Maine law, she said, there is no established right to harvest seaweed.
“The taking of rockweed from private lands is in legal limbo,” she said Saturday.
Previous versions of this story incorrectly stated the worth of the fresh rockweed harvest from 2010.