Thirty‑three individuals spoke at the March 20 hearing by the legislature's Marine Resources Committee on a bill that would require the development of a statewide approach to seaweed management and would scrap the existing law creating the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area that was established in 2009. Speakers presented a wide array of opinions on whether or not the bill should become law during the three and a half hour hearing. The only point that they all agreed upon is that seaweed -- primarily rockweed -- is a resource that needs to be protected and that damage to that resource would bring about effects that may not be recognized at this time.
Beyond that, there was little agreement. Some -- from both sides of the question -- agreed that a statewide standard would be beneficial, as long as the Department of Marine Resources was given ample resources to enforce whatever standard was developed. "The devil is in the details," said one speaker.
Rep. Ellen Winchenbach of Waldoboro, who sponsored the bill at the request of the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), appeared to recognize the controversy and pointed out that the committee could insert language that would preserve the Cobscook Bay provisions, either permanently or until final acceptance of the expected DMR regulations. She deferred further questions to the DMR.
Rep. Katherine Cassidy of Lubec stated that her testimony was on behalf of constituents who live "three and a half hours away" and "live by the tides," unable to afford the cost of travel to tell the committee that "they wonder how much will be left for future generations." Cassidy spoke of her frustration in learning the identity of harvesters from DMR personnel, and of being told the information "may be confidential." She urged committee members to "come see for yourself what happens when the management plan does not include accountability," and she stated that dropping the Cobscook Bay provisions would be "a harmful step backwards."
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher spoke in favor of the bill but pointed out "it was never the department's goal" to eliminate the Cobscook Bay provisions without first having in place a comprehensive plan. Keliher expressed concerns about "misinformation in the press" and asked the committee to consider the enforcement difficulties involved if different standards were to be applied in different areas.
Keliher also addressed Cassidy's questions about the identity of harvesters, saying that her question had been too specific, as fishermen are guaranteed confidentiality in their catch reports, and that the Attorney General's Office had advised the DMR in their response.
Former State Senator Dennis Damon urged lawmakers to consider carefully what they proposed, saying, "The sea provides a potential finite food supply, and it can provide for us in the future ... if we don't get greedy." He referred to the distressed urchin fishery, where urchins were first seen as a nuisance, but then were overfished when a foreign market opened up. "There is no such thing anymore as 'trash fish,'" he said, "only species whose value is not yet known."
"Sustainable harvest" was one recurring theme, although there was little agreement on what that means. One harvester spoke about how his mechanical harvesting equipment was "incapable of overharvesting" because of how the blade assembly was recessed inside the suction tube. Several processors spoke of the number of year‑round jobs their companies provide and the years they have been in business. Most seemed to agree with Shep Erhardt, of Franklin's Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, who said he "didn't want to see another fishery in decline." Bimbo Look of Jonesport seconded this when he said his 8‑year‑old harvesting operation was "not going to rape the shores of Jonesport."
Whether or not rockweed harvesting even qualifies as a "fishery" was in dispute, as the answer might determine who actually owns uncut rockweed. George Seaver of Ocean Organics in Waldoboro said that the law is very clear that "seaweed is held in trust for the people of the state," while other speakers were equally adamant in citing case law to show that upland landowners who own to the low-water mark thus control the resource.
The scientists also spoke. Dr. Brian Beal of the University of Maine at Machias declared that a "sustainable harvest can occur in Maine," and that rockweed has a "54% turnover rate," according to studies performed in 1995 and 1996, meaning that cut plants regrow within two years.
Robin Hadlock Seeley, Ph.D., disputed this point, citing other studies that showed much slower growth, and suggesting that the real issue was the "four cents per pound for cattle feed and fertilizer companies." She, as well as others, described the rockweed growth as "underwater forests" that serve as a "nursery" for a wide array of species.
Lubec resident Richard Hoyt, president of the Fundy Audubon Chapter, was one of the last speakers. He summed up the viewpoint of many of those objecting by saying, "There's just too much at stake here to jeopardize our resources" by continued cutting in Cobscook Bay, urging the legislature to impose a moratorium on rockweed harvesting until such time as the scientists can determine "how much is sustainable."
A work session on the bill by the committee has not yet been scheduled.