A team appointed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources to develop a rockweed harvest management plan has finalized its recommendations. In my view, the signals are not encouraging. The Department of Marine Resources and industry are pushing for large-scale seaweed harvesting despite admitting unknown consequences. It’s shaping up to become another embarrassing chapter in the misuse and decline of Maine’s coastal resources.
The stated goal of the rockweed harvest management plan is “To establish harvest guidelines that support the long-term health and sustainability of Ascophyllum nodosum [rockweed] and its associated biota along the Maine coast.” But at least five aspects of this plan should be questioned:
Ownership of the resource — The public’s right to take shellfish and worms in the intertidal zone is well established in law. But both the state attorney general and Department of Marine Resources acknowledge that rockweed ownership is legally unclear. Yet under the plan, every shoreline owner’s front property, the intertidal zone, can be violated without warning. On what legal or ethical basis can the Department of Marine Resources facilitate a taking of property? Common sense and fairness say that until ownership is determined, cutting rockweed without owner permission should not be allowed.
Ecological impacts — The plan goals include “sustainability.” The plan development team examined studies related to impact but dismissed two major published reviews, one that advised against large-scale cutting in the absence of proof of ecological sustainability and another by the Canadian federal government that advised against cutting unless the rockweed beds can recover fully within one year. Without ecological sustainability, the rockweed industry might prosper, but fisheries habitat would be degraded. How can large-scale and escalated cutting be justified when important questions about short-term and long-term ecological impact remain unanswered?
Impact on other commercial interests — An honest economic calculation would include what is being lost by cutting, not simply what might be gained economically by one vested interest. Large-scale cutting may harm other interests: periwinkle harvesting (they live in the rockweed), lobstering (young and adults use rockweed as nursery areas and roam in the rockweed at high tide during the night), other fisheries (by reducing protective habitat and food supply), tourism and recreation (by reducing wildlife observation, sport fishing and enjoyment of natural beauty), and shorefront land values. The plan development team gave little attention to these considerations except to deny significant impacts on wildlife and commercial fisheries. No section about comprehensive impacts of rockweed cutting on other marine species appears in the plan.
Enforcement — Substantial harvest fees, which the Department of Marine Resources has thus far not supported, are necessary to fund enforcement of coastwide operations. The plan’s suggestion of “self-regulation” is not a convincing solution.
Protected “no-cut” areas — A Department of Marine Resources-appointed group will recommend which lands should be protected from cutting because of their ecological value to wildlife or research potential. But the Department of Marine Resources put twice as many representatives of industry as conservation on its first planning team. Who will be choosing the “no-cut” areas? The group should include those who best know their features: parks, wildlife and nature conservancy people. The selection should not be a “routine technical” matter to be decided by the Department of Marine Resources; this invites conflict of interest. All parks and designated conservation areas, federal, state, local and private, should be left alone for wildlife and fishery habitat and public recreation.
A close relationship between an industry and its regulating agency can easily become corrupt and harm other economic interests, the taxpayers or the environment. We need resolution of ownership, proper use of science, a fair assessment of economic impacts, and real protection for public and private natural areas. And the Legislature needs to assert more control in the rockweed management process.
We’ve all seen the coastal fisheries disappear one by one, taking the coastal economy downward with them. The present approach to rockweed harvesting risks being another damaging blow unless it gives more honest consideration to the long-term best interests of Maine.
Dr. Kenneth Ross, a native of coastal Washington County, 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.