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Seaweed is no hayfield: Why coastal Maine’s future depends on science-based rockweed plan

Tom Roth, owner of VitaminSea, harvests seaweed off rocks near Clapboard Island in Casco Bay.
Courtesy of VitaminSea
Tom Roth, owner of VitaminSea, harvests seaweed off rocks near Clapboard Island in Casco Bay.
Posted Nov. 20, 2013, at 11:42 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 20, 2013, at 1:31 p.m.

Anyone who has watched the Maine coast over the years knows that the birds, finfish and shellfish, with a few exceptions such as lobsters, have steadily and greatly declined. This has resulted in a loss of fishing jobs, weakening of coastal communities, reduction of attractions for tourism and damage to the inshore ecosystem. It is an economic, social and biological tragedy, and it is getting worse.

The prime cause is overharvesting, both inshore and in deep water. Typically, fishers want large quotas, regulators give in to the pressure, the stocks decline and are never allowed to fully recover. The markets demand more than the ecosystem can produce.

Now comes a new controversy — over rockweed, the common olive-green seaweed of the intertidal zone. Only recently has it begun to be harvested on a large scale and, unlike finfish or shellfish, it functions as habitat and food. Therefore, its ecological role and significance are more difficult to see and measure. So some people view it as a hayfield that can be cut periodically without harm, while others see it as habitat and food being removed, thus causing harm.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is developing a plan for coastwide harvest of seaweed. By both Maine law and common sense, the department is supposed to maintain the health of the coastal ecosystem, so it can contribute to the economic well-being of coastal communities and enhance other values including recreation and wildlife.

The “hayfield” approach of focusing on rockweed cutting and regrowth is far too narrow for these purposes. We need to understand the direct and indirect effects of cutting — both in present and possible future volumes — on fisheries, tourism, recreation and wildlife.

One side of the debate over rockweed cutting claims that studies show no harm; the other claims some proven harm and great potential for future harm. Much more study is needed, but it must meet professional standards of quality; otherwise it will not be respected and will invite policy that doesn’t work.

It makes no sense to remove large and increasing amounts of rockweed, or any other element of the coastal ecosystem, unless and until published scientific research shows that no significant harm will be done. The evidence must meet a standard that can convince most independent scientists knowledgeable about intertidal ecology.

The state of Maine acknowledges that ownership of intertidal plants is unresolved, yet the Department of Marine Resources issues licenses for large-scale cutting on private lands, a questionable and confusing policy. It is particularly unfair to homeowners and inappropriate for properties designated for conservation. All parties to the rockweed dispute need resolution of the question; for example, industry can hardly plan its investments in the face of such uncertainty. At minimum, the harvest plan should acknowledge the ownership problem and explain its relationship to the proposed statewide plan.

It is understandable that observers would get the impression — from the weak enforcement, lack of adequate research, avoidance of the ownership question, and a planning team with twice as many harvesters as conservationists — that the Department of Marine Resources has for years heavily favored rockweed extraction over all competing interests, including other resource harvesters, homeowners, conservation and, perhaps, tourism. It suggests an agency-industry alliance that would perpetuate cynical attitudes toward Maine government and damage the reputation of the department. It would be unlikely to provide long-term protection for coastal resources.

Long ago when resources were abundant, we could afford, or so it seemed, to be wasteful and unscientific. But it really didn’t make sense then and certainly doesn’t now.

As we fight over the dregs of our once-abundant shore life, each dispute is a test of how much we are willing to leave for our grandchildren. So it is with rockweed.

I call on the plan development team, the Department of Marine Resources, the members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, and all others involved in the rockweed controversy to support a plan, based on published science, that gives first priority to maintaining the health of the inshore ecosystem.

The future of coastal Maine depends on it.

Dr. Kenneth Ross, a native of Red Beach, is a retired professor of political science, small business owner on Cobscook Bay and adviser to the Rockweed Coalition. He lives in Robbinston and Ann Arbor, Mich.

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