March 27 ,  2009  






Rockweed controversy heats up as season nears

    by Gail Menzel           

The controversy surrounding the harvesting of rockweed in Cobscook Bay that stayed on the back burner during the winter months is beginning to heat up as the 2009 harvest season approaches. Since their last harvest ended in October, Acadian Seaplants Ltd. (ASL) has been working on their plan for this year, and a new operation is about to be launched by Butch Harris of Eastport and two partners. Opponents of the harvest have mobilized an organization, The Rockweed Coalition, to seek support for a moratorium of at least one year while a scientific assessment is conducted of the effects rockweed removal may have on other plant and animal species in the bay. Meanwhile, state legislators have introduced bills seeking to deal with some of the contentious issues.

Chouan Strongin of Whiting has been employed to manage this year's harvest for ASL. She worked as a harvester last year when Tim Sheehan of Pembroke was the company's on-site manager. Sheehan was hired for the same position this year, until he was forced to resign after emergency neck surgery requiring an extended recovery period.

According to Rex Hunter, ASL vice president for resource management, the company plans to start with seven or eight boats, initially carrying two harvesters apiece, for a crew of up to 16. They hope to recruit local people as well as students at the University of Maine at Machias. Strongin says she will train the workers on the water for about a week, after which Hunter expects operations to begin around the last week of May and last through September or early October, ending "when the weather becomes unsafe" and "when harvest quotas have been reached." He did not project the anticipated harvest for 2009, stating that would be determined in conjunction with the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). He noted that the company's policy is to remove less than the predicted annual growth of the rockweed in order to sustain the biomass. The product will again be trucked to ASL's meal processing facility in Pennfield, N.B., although Hunter says a plant "in close proximity to the harvest" could be established "possibly, one day."

New operation

Harris expects his new venture could get off the ground by next month. He just built one 21-foot boat for harvesting and plans to construct two more within a month, creating work for two harvesters and a crane operator, he says. Initially he will contract with an existing Maine factory to process his rockweed, but he hopes to set up his own facility by late fall. He projects he would then need a workforce of 20 people, potentially as many as 30, in what he says would be a year-round business. Harris intends to continue his summertime charter boat business as well, catering to short-tripping tourists out of Eastport.

Although the planned new venture might seem to be competing for the same product as ASL, Harris says he doesn't view Acadia as a competitor. He expects to "work with them to ensure the bay isn't over-harvested," and cites the Maine Seaweed Council, of which he is a member, as an example of cooperation within the industry to protect the resource. Gavin Hood, vice president of the council, says their mission is to develop "a working, wild, sustainable resource in Maine." He calls Cobscook Bay "a good resource for rockweed," citing studies that estimate the biomass in the bay at 150,000 to 180,000 tons. Last year, he said, "Acadian only harvested one to two percent of that; up to 17% could be harvested and it would still grow."

Opponents voice concerns

Some opponents of harvesting have voiced their concerns individually for over a decade, but last year a group of biologists, property owners, conservationists, fishermen and others joined The Rockweed Coalition. Founding members include Robin Hadlock Seeley, PhD., a senior researcher at Cornell University, who has studied Cobscook Bay and the marine species it supports since 1982; Leo Murray, president of Cobscook Bay Fisherman's Association (CBFA); and Julie Keene, a fisherman from Trescott and a member of CBFA, among others. Seeley believes more scientific study is necessary to determine what effects harvesting might have on the bay's ecosystem and on the fish, snails, scallops, shorebirds and other species that depend on rockweed as habitat. CBFA members have pointed to the negative effects rockweed harvesting could have on their efforts to restore the scallop fishery in the bay.

Citing the current minimal regulation of rockweed harvesting C basically a requirement that the plant may be cut no closer than 16 inches from the holdfast C the coalition has sought a moratorium on harvesting in Cobscook Bay until scientific studies are conducted and "appropriate and enforceable harvesting regulations" are in place. They have won support from the Washington County commissioners, select boards in Lubec and Pembroke, the Passamaquoddy tribal government, the Quoddy Regional Land Trust (QRLT), Tide Mill Farm, individuals who have signed petitions they are circulating and those who have registered their objections on the coalition's website, <>.

Keene has been particularly active over the winter, appearing at meetings to seek the support of elected officials for a moratorium. She presented the coalition's case at two county commission meetings, most recently on March 5 when she won strong backing from Commissioner Kevin Shorey, who said: "Kevin Raye was going to put a bill in for a moratorium, then got word that Butch Harris wants to start a plant. Now what's to stop 10 harvesters in the bay?"

Also speaking to the commission on behalf of a moratorium was Jane Bell, whose family is the ninth generation owner of Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds on five miles of shorefront. "Our deed says we own rights to the low water mark," she noted. QRLT director Alan Brooks said the land trust protects 19 bayside properties with 15 shorefront miles. "All have been harvested," he added, "despite assurances from Acadian they would not." Biologist Steve Crawford, environmental director for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, advocated for a moratorium and added, "No one knows who owns the seaweed. It needs to be decided by the courts."

Legislation considered

The coalition has enlisted at least one state legislator in their cause, Rep. Howard McFadden of Dennysville, who introduced a bill last year that would impose a two-year moratorium on the harvest. McFadden said this week that he is mindful of the jobs that the harvest creates, but "I don't want to see the bay destroyed." He said his bill has now been "folded in" with one that has been introduced by Senator Kevin Raye of Perry, LD 345, "An Act to Regulate the Rockweed Harvest in Cobscook Bay." According to David Etnier of the DMR, Raye's bill is scheduled for a hearing before the legislature's Marine Resources Committee on Wednesday, April 8, at 1 p.m. The bill is identified on the legislature's website as a "concept draft summary" and has a title but no provisions as yet.

Another bill, LD 852, "An Act to Clarify the Public Ownership of Marine Organisms within the Intertidal Zone," was introduced by Senator David Trahan of Waldoboro and was the subject of a two and a half hour hearing on March 25 before the Marine Resources Committee. As stated in the summary, the bill "declares that the state owns and controls the harvesting of seaweed, shellfish and other marine organisms on or under lands within the intertidal zone." Six persons testified in favor of the bill, all officers, members or former members of the Maine Seaweed Council or industry representatives. Two witnesses testified against the bill, both representing conservation groups, including Alan Brooks of the QRLT.

The last witness before the committee, Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy, testified "neither for nor against the bill," saying his organization supports seaweed harvesting "in a sustainable manner." He said the Trahan bill "would do little to resolve the issues" and told the committee, "Senator Raye is working to find a compromise." He called Raye's approach "thoughtful and collaborative. Better management [of the resource] would be the best approach." Abello also lauded the efforts of Will Hopkins, director of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center (CBRC), in "bringing folks together" to explore some areas of agreement that will be incorporated in the language of Raye's legislative proposal, LD 345. As the hearing adjourned, the committee decided not to schedule an immediate work session for Trahan's bill, but rather to schedule LD 345 for a work session on Wednesday, April 15, and consider LD 852 at that time.

Landowners' rights

The issue of whether property owners' have the right to bar harvesting on their shorefront was part of the debate at a day-long CBRC symposium last October that was moderated by Hopkins. About 10 area landowners were in the audience, and those who spoke recounted confrontational episodes with harvesters and unkept promises to honor their "no harvest" requests. Asked about his company's policy for this year, Hunter said, "Acadian Seaplants will conduct its harvest in the same manner as last year and will continue to respect landowner wishes." Asked how landowners who wish to submit "no harvest" requests to the company should do so, Hunter said the company "has obtained a list" from QRLT of excluded areas. Hood acknowledges, "If you make the promise [not to harvest], it's bad PR not to follow through."

Biologists from Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W) recently met with ASL representatives, according to the DIF&W newsletter published March 20. As owner-manager of some 2,000 acres of land on Cobscook Bay and 24 miles of shoreline, the department last year asked ASL to exclude their property, mostly acquired with state and federal conservation funds, from harvesting. DIF&W personnel are looking at data ASL provided as well as research from The Rockweed Coalition "in the coming weeks" as part of assessing the harvest's impact at specific sites.

At Senator Raye's request, Hopkins assembled a panel of people of differing views "to see if there are any issues on which we can agree that might lead to legislative solutions," as Hopkins wrote in his summary of the January 22 meeting. He said he invited six members of CBFA, three of whom had spoken for a moratorium at a meeting of the association and three against. Also participating were Tim Sheehan and Chris Bartlett of Eastport, identified as a biologist.

According to Hopkins' notes, the participants agreed that more research is needed on the role of rockweed in the bay; that landowners' requests not to harvest the rockweed below their property should be honored; that a system is needed for identifying and marking locations which should not be harvested; that harvesters need training in methods, regulations, and identifying "no-cut" areas; and that harvesters' license requirements should establish harvesting protocols with penalties.


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