The heart and soul of Maine is its relationship with the ocean. Artists have rendered the shoreline for centuries – the gray, grained walls against which the sea breaks, the edge with its occasional gravel beaches, pools filled with marine life and dark forms of seaweed.
Mostly, it is rockweed, seen moving below the high water, then revealed as the tide recedes. It’s a clinging mass of varied greens and yellow strands of glistening plant life teeming with small marine species, seen and unseen.
This weed offers shelter to many species, an incubation place for plankton, sea urchins, periwinkles, young-adult lobsters and coastal animals. They forage there for nutrition.
That nutritional value extends, of course, to us. There is a small but long-lived harvest of seaweed in Maine, done mostly by a small group of seasonal workers who live alongshore. The market has been for lobster packing and locally-produced health products. But that is changing and today even the lowly rockweed has its corporate, big money attraction.
Over the past few years, demand for seaweed has grown — for fertilizer, health products and additives to processed foods. As a small place filled with independent-minded people, and little regulatory resources, Maine has become vulnerable to larger interests. Foreign corporations have come to the area because they have exhausted their own supply or have been regulated against by their own governments.
What we have here is another classic example of unrestricted harvest, with no interest in sustainability or the local community. Fish, oil, gas, minerals, water — we see the same phenomenon worldwide.
Consider the history of fishing in Maine. In the 19th century, cod-fishing was at the center of our economy. In the 20th century, due to unrestrained overfishing, the supply and the monetary return collapsed. Whole communities were abandoned.
What has followed? Exactly the same thing with groundfish, taken until less than a handful of boats are operating today from Maine ports. This year, the state was forced to shorten the scallop season, close the shrimp season completely and delay the opening for lucrative elvers until quotas and regulations could be finalized.
Processing is another problem. For years, Maine shipped most of its lobster harvest to Canada where it was processed, packaged and distributed not as a product of Maine.
The increase in rockweed harvest has produced a similar situation, where the state has one private inadequate processing entity and the rest is exported north to be transformed into a Canadian product, circumventing the local harvest limits and allocating the real profit from this endeavor to others. Even the harvesters are affected, with some locals still at work, while some of the companies look to employ temporary migrant workers from away to harvest the weed at less-than competitive wages.
In the Maine Legislature, measures to control rockweed harvest areas, regulate for short-term plant regeneration, protect the associated habitat and fisheries, establish certain no-cut zones, and create a management plan stalled in the usual debate between environmentalists and vested economic or political interests. In the meantime, without guidelines and controls, the rocky coast is being stripped bare southward, one cove at a time.
What are we doing? Rockweed is just another example of “failing down the food chain.” Again and again, we affirm short-term profit over long-term sustainability. Governance fails us and we lose an irreplaceable asset.
Why? Will we ever learn? Will we ever understand how we damage ourselves with this consistent ill-logic and narrow thinking? This is not just an embarrassment and loss for Maine. It is emblematic of comparable losses we are facing all round this world, and we should know better.
Peter Neill of Sedgwick is director of the nonprofit World Ocean Observatory.
Correction: The contributor's name was spelled incorrectly. It is Peter Neill.