Panel of experts to help state marine agency set rockweed conservation areas

Jake Hunkler of Beals is shown harvesting rockweed by hand on Fisherman's Island during the summer of 2013 for an experiment by Brian Beal, professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine-Machias and director of research of the Downeast Institute.
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Jake Hunkler of Beals is shown harvesting rockweed by hand on Fisherman's Island during the summer of 2013 for an experiment by Brian Beal, professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine-Machias and director of research of the Downeast Institute.
Posted Aug. 10, 2014, at 4:40 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 10, 2014, at 5:27 p.m.

The state Department of Marine Resources is putting together a panel to help the agency establish areas where rockweed would be off limits to harvesting.

The group is scheduled to begin meetings this month, and DMR is required to report on its progress to the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources in January.

The department announced in early July it was extending the deadline for nominations of people to serve on the working group until July 25. Agency spokesman Jeff Nichols indicated last week the department may not be seeking nominations any longer. The department is expected to issue an announcement about the working group in the next week or so, he said.

Legislation requires Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher to create a working group to complete work begun by the Rockweed Plan Development Team last year. The panel will help the department to develop criteria for determining which areas should be closed, year-round or seasonally, to rockweed harvesting. It also is charged with recommending a rulemaking process to designate no-harvest areas.

The working group, to be made up of scientists and others with expertise in the rockweed fishery, is expected to meet monthly in sessions that will be open to the public.

Several areas likely should be set aside and conserved, according to Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor at the University of Maine-Machias. He served on the team that helped DMR develop the rockweed fishery management plan outlined in a report the group issued in January.

For example, areas that provide habitat to seals, fledgling sea ducks, or other marine life or wildlife perhaps should be conserved, Beal suggested when he discussed the topic by phone Sunday. Areas that are preserved also could serve as controls for studies comparing harvested and unharvested areas, Beal said.

About 14.6 million pounds of rockweed was harvested in Maine in 2012 compared to 483,802 pounds of other seaweed. While the harvest of other types of seaweed has been relatively stable for the past nine years, the harvest of rockweed has grown significantly since the harvest of 3.2 million pounds in 2003.

The landed value of rockweed is “relatively low,” according to the team’s report, though only a small amount is sold fresh or raw. The majority is processed into other products — most rockweed harvested in Maine is processed into nutritional supplements or concentrated fertilizers, according to the team’s report.

The team’s report included a number of other recommendations besides the establishment of the working group to designate no-harvest areas. Other recommendations included a 16-inch minimum cutting height, harvester training, the implementation of coast-wide sector management, and maintaining the rockweed management plan for Cobscook Bay until no-harvest areas and sector management are adopted.

The team also said research needs identified by a symposium in 2010 remain a high priority. The research needs include evaluating long-term effects of harvest techniques and harvest impacts on habitat.

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