A bill to amend the rockweed harvesting laws in Maine was opposed by both conservationists and harvesters, with even those few who testified in favor of the legislation suggesting changes to the measure, during a hearing before the legislature's Marine Resources Committee on March 24.
The bill would change existing law for seaweed harvesting to make rules for the allocation of harvesting sectors major substantive rules, instead of minor technical ones, and would have a working group formed to identify criteria for designating no-harvest areas and areas to be closed to harvesting. The proposals build on recommendations in the Fishery Management Plan for Rockweed that was drafted by a Plan Development Team last year. Those recommendations would extend along the entire Maine coast the sector-management plan now in effect in Cobscook Bay.
During the hearing, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher testified against the bill, arguing that the designation of no-harvest areas should not be based on whether an upland area is designated as a conserved land. He felt it would set "a dangerous precedent" that the designation of a land conservation area would determine whether marine harvesting could occur nearby. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, agreed, noting that such legislation could affect how other species are managed. Decisions to set aside conservation areas should be based "on ecological impacts and not land ownership."
Concerns had been raised about corporate monopolies controlling the sectors that are allocated for harvesting, but Keliher stated the intent of the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is that there "will not be a corporate approach to managing this fishery."
Another issue debated during the hearing was the question of who owns the rockweed and whether rockweed harvesting should be defined as a fishery, since that would allow for harvesting in the intertidal zone. A number of people noted that ownership will have to be decided by a court case.
Stanley Karod of Camden, a former attorney, said he believes he owns the seaweed in the intertidal zone at his land in Pembroke, although he is willing to share it. "I see no respect for my property interests as far as what's been done in this matter," he commented. Thomas Sidar, executive director of the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, said the bill should not be approved until the state can demonstrate its authority to allow harvesting on private lands without the permission of the legal owner.
However, Bob Morse of North American Kelp in Waldoboro said the legislation would "turn the public trust doctrine on its head," since he maintained that rockweed harvesting is a fishery, which is allowed under state law in the intertidal zone. "Traditional fishing rights are in common law," he told the committee.
Representatives from a number of conservation organizations spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that the process for setting no-harvest areas should provide for significant public input and that those rules should be defined as major substantive rules so that, along with the DMR rule-making procedure, there would be additional oversight by the legislature.
Jane Bell of Edmunds pointed to the unknown impacts of rockweed harvesting and how it may delay the recovery of other marine species, since the seaweed serves as habitat for many species. However, Jake Wilson of Cushing, who works for North American Kelp, said he has seen no evidence of responsible harvesting affecting other fisheries.
Dick Hoyt of Lubec, president of the Fundy Audubon Chapter, urged that stringent guidelines for any harvest be set by the committee. He also read a letter from Janet Weston of Trescott, who said that Cobscook Bay is now "a desert," because of the loss of species and that rockweed "is the last untouched part of the ecosystem."
Representatives from the seaweed harvesting industry also objected to provisions of the bill. David Preston of North American Kelp said the industry does not object to setting aside no-harvest areas, but he added, "We believe every area is okay to harvest." He noted that the Cobscook Bay rockweed management plan took out 52% of the bay's rockweed biomass in setting aside conservation areas where harvesting cannot occur. "We'd rather not see that along the entire coast." He argued that there should be "a vetting process" to demonstrate the ecological significance of an area before it can be closed. Areas should not be off limits "just because they are federal, state or private conservation areas." Bob Morse added that the 16" minimum cutting height removes 25% of the biomass from any harvesting.
George Seaver of Ocean Organics in Waldoboro argued that the legislation would place the burden on the seaweed industry to prove that harvesting would have no impact on habitat, while the law should place the burden on the DMR to establish that it would not be acceptable to harvest in a certain area.
Others objected to the idea of allocating sectors so that companies would have exclusive harvesting rights there, noting that if a similar plan were adopted for the lobster fishery, with a Canadian company exclusively harvesting the lobsters in an area of the Maine coast and exporting them for processing in Canada, those suggesting the plan "would be laughed out of the room."
It was also suggested that funding be provided to ensure enforcement of the law, since it was alleged that there are areas of Cobscook Bay where the regulations have not been followed.
The committee was scheduled to hold a work session on the bill on March 26.
Concerns expressed at Whiting meeting
A meeting to discuss the bill was held in Whiting on March 22, before the legislative hearing. Comments at the meeting included that "the process is flawed" and that there should be a "scientific study" that would show the "cause and effect" of harvesting on habitats. Normand Laberge of Trescott added, "It's great to have a bill, but it is starting with a flawed process." Later in the meeting participants discussed who should do such research C the state or industry. The meeting was organized by Rep. Katherine Cassidy of Lubec.
Amanda Butler, a marine biology student who lives in Lubec, said, "There should be bay committees, since each area has its own unique characteristics. A state committee would not pick up those differences."
Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley, a marine ecologist who co-founded the Rockweed Coalition, noted that the 2008 Cobscook Bay rockweed management law will probably be maintained until it is repealed and a new statewide plan takes effect.
There was some discussion as to the percentage of rockweed that can appropriately be harvested and then offset by the length of time the particular area should be closed. Butler said, "Veteran harvesters only take tops of plants C 34 to 36 inches, [which is] not against conservation. They still need to make a living."
Seeley responded, saying that the "habitat is still being changed," because the plants are being modified from "tall to wide." She added that "shorter, denser plants provide" a more secure habitat and that "tall plants provide a canopy," noting that ducklings are particularly vulnerable without that type of coverage.
Julie Keene, a fisherman from Lubec, told the group that the rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay has had a significant "impact on scallops, lobsters, elvers, clams and periwinkles." She added that in the inner bay area there used to be enough to "make a living. Now, however, there are no wrinkles and dead clams and no one knows why." Janet Weston continued along the same lines, saying that she used to see mussels, clams, starfish and sea anemones along the shore but now they are gone. What is left, she said, are "rocks coated with mud and green crabs."
Robert Bell of Edmunds said there is a "need for a farming mentality" so that it would "create longevity of the industry" and noted that "seaweed is so valuable to all species in the water."
There was comparison of rockweed harvesting in Ireland and in Maine. The lack of biodiversity studies in Ireland and the difference in cut height were pointed out as making comparisons difficult.
Those at the meeting expressed concern as to the makeup of the working group that would be formed under the legislation and the balance of members representing conservationists and industry. Keene said that she believes a fisherman from Cobscook Bay should be a member of this group.