AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to regulating how seaweed is commercially harvested on Maine’s coast, legislators were urged Wednesday not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The baby in this case is a rockweed management plan for Cobscook Bay that was adopted in 2009.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is hoping to get approval from the Legislature to develop a statewide management plan for rockweed, kelp, Irish moss and other commercially harvested seaweed species. The proposal, however, also would eliminate the rockweed management plan for Cobscook Bay.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on the bill, LD 585, that would give DMR such approval. For nearly four hours, people supportive of DMR’s efforts and others more skeptical of the bill’s provisions testified about Maine’s seaweed industry and their perspectives on regulating seaweed harvesting.

Many facts were disputed during the hearing — such as whether lobster use rockweed as habitat and whether rockweed plants can live for centuries — but many who expressed reservations about the bill cited a section in it that would repeal the existing rockweed management plan for Cobscook Bay.

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher told the committee that language in the bill calls for repeal of the Cobscook Bay plan, but not until 90 days after the second regular session of the 126th Legislature ends in 2014. He said the department would present its statewide seaweed management plan to the committee no later than Jan. 31, 2014, and would implement that plan before the Cobscook Bay plan was repealed.

“In 2012, over 15 million pounds of seaweed were landed in Maine, representing 5 percent of Maine’s total commercial landings by weight,” Keliher said. “This product was valued at $523,000 dollars. While these landed values may not seem very significant in the context of our other fisheries, the value after processing is estimated at $20 million.”

Seaweed harvesting must be managed effectively and comprehensively in order to provide for long-term sustainability, he added.

Dennis Damon, a former state legislator from Trenton who chaired the Marine Resources Committee when the Cobscook Bay plan was approved, urged the committee not to repeal it. He did, however, support having DMR implement management restrictions on seaweed harvesting to protect the resource. Seaweed can grow in patches several feet deep and it provides habitat for species important to Maine’s other commercial fisheries, he said.

If nothing is done soon, it could be overharvested, much as sea urchins were in the 1990s Damon added. Current protections in Cobscook Bay that prohibit cutting rockweed below 16 inches should be applied along the rest of the coast, he said.

“What if the harvest goes below the 16-inch threshold?” Damon asked. “The result is a denuded landscape and loss of habitat.”

Some suggested that harvesting of seaweed has a direct impact on other marine harvesting trades, such as gathering periwinkles or digging for clams.

Nancy Prentiss, a marine biologist who teaches at the University of Maine at Farmington, said she favors some sort of seaweed protection plan, but is opposed to repealing the harvesting regulations for Cobscook Bay. A shorefront property owner on Whiting Bay, which is part of Cobscook Bay, Prentiss said rockweed thickets are important to the coastal marine ecosystem.

“It’s truly a virtual garden,” she said. “I don’t see how you can harvest this rockweed without also taking animals. Many of them are microscopic.”

Other points of debate raised at the hearing included whether the state should continue to allow seaweed to be picked by mechanical harvesters or if it should only allow people to cut the biomass by hand; whether seaweed above the low-tide line legally belongs to riparian landowners or the public; and whether seaweed should be managed as if it were a fishery.

Robin Hadlock Seeley, a senior research associate at Cornell University who for much of the year lives on Cobscook Bay, said harvesting seaweed amounts to fishing “no more than logging in the forest is the same as a deer hunt.”

She said she was part of the Rockweed Coalition, which according to the group’s web site is working “to end commercial cutting and removal of rockweed … until studies can demonstrate that cutting rockweed does not harm the ecosystem.”

Several conservation nonprofit organizations had representatives testify at the hearing, including the Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Conservation Law Foundation and Downeast Coastal Conservancy, most of whom told the committee not to discard the Cobscook Bay plan.

Several commercial seaweed harvesting or processing companies also had representatives at the hearing, including Acadian Seaplants, Ocean Organics, Source Inc., Atlantic Laboratories and Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. Most testified in favor of the bill, with none opposed.

Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin said seaweeds are used in cosmetics, medicine, and natural food products, the last of which his company specializes in.

“It’s a very strong market and it’s growing at a double-digit rate,” Erhart said.

He said he supports the bill because developing a coastwide management plan for seaweed harvesting will help make sure the industry is viable over the long run.

“Passage of this bill will ensure its success,” Erhart said. “Please put this bill through.”

A committee work session on LD 585 has yet to be scheduled.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....