A proposal to repeal the Cobscook Bay rockweed law and adopt a statewide plan for seaweed harvesting has stirred up opposition Downeast. A legislative hearing is set for March 20 on a bill that, along with repealing the 2009 Cobscook Bay law, would provide for a seaweed management plan for the entire Maine coast. Meanwhile, a grassroots petition drive that began in Lubec opposes the repeal of the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area and requests a moratorium on any more harvesting in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays. The petition had garnered 500 signatures as of March 3.
LD 585 would repeal the Cobscook Bay law in the summer of 2014 and would direct the commissioner of marine resources to develop a fisheries management plan for seaweed that would be presented to the legislature no later than January 2014. Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy at the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), explains that, if the legislature's Marine Resources Committee then supports the DMR's process and believes it is appropriate, the DMR would adopt the plan, prior to the repeal of the Cobscook Bay management law. She says if the legislature does not like the statewide plan, then legislators could remove the provision for repealing the Cobscook Bay plan.
Robin Hadlock Seeley, a director of the Rockweed Coalition, which opposes commercial rockweed harvesting, believes that the most problematic issue with LD 585 is that "it makes no sense to ask the legislature to vote to repeal a law -- that was a compromise worked out during public hearing and public work sessions with much effort and time on everyone's part in 2009 -- before the legislators know what would replace that law."
Gilbert says it is premature to comment on what provisions might be in a statewide plan. However, LD 585 would provide that the commissioner of marine resources could designate sectors for harvesting rockweed, place limitations on the harvest by sector and establish a process for the allocation of sectors. Those measures then could be similar to provisions in the Cobscook Bay law. That law requires the allocation of sectors to different harvesters and restricts the amount of rockweed that can be harvested in any sector to no more than 17% of the available biomass.
Gilbert says that the Cobscook Bay plan, or elements of it, could be incorporated into a statewide plan, but the department wants a comprehensive plan for the entire coast, "instead of a specific program for a specific place. The goal is to not have vastly different management regimes for different parts of the coast." While the lobster and scallop fisheries in Maine are divided into zones, she notes that those fisheries do not have significantly different management for each zone. She adds that in those fisheries there are differences in the nature of the resource along different parts of the coast.
The DMR has submitted another bill, LD 811, that would establish general requirements for the development of fisheries management plans by the commissioner of marine resources, including the objectives that plans must seek to address and the management and scientific content for the plans. The bill also provides that the commissioner may adopt a management plan or other policy on the conservation or regulation of marine organisms only after prior notice and a public hearing and with the advice and consent of the Marine Resources Advisory Council. Gilbert notes that under existing law the DMR has unspecific authority with regard to fisheries management plans. She says Commissioner Patrick Keliher wants to engage the legislature with what plans should seek to do and what they should contain.
Another issue with a statewide seaweed plan that could include limits placed on the harvest is how estimates of the total rockweed biomass would be obtained. Seeley comments, "Any statewide management plan would have to start with the basics for management of any biological resource: a starting biomass estimate. The biomass estimate would then have to be updated in each area as rockweed cutting proceeds each year." She notes that the DMR "appears not to have the resources to do a biomass estimate for Cobscook Bay, so how would DMR have the resources to do biomass estimates for areas along the entire coast? This is a real problem with a statewide plan."
While the industry conducts the biomass estimates in Cobscook Bay, so that harvesting can be limited to 17% of the total available biomass in any sector, for a statewide plan Gilbert of the DMR says that the determination of biomass estimates "might be a role for industry, but we might do some ground-truthing" of those estimates.
Seeley says the Rockweed Coalition's opposition to any commercial‑scale rockweed harvesting along the coast is based on three reasons: the existing law is apparently not enforceable; there are no data and there is no understanding of what level of cutting is ecologically sustainable; and no one knows who owns the rockweed. She adds, "The state of Maine is clear about this: they do not know who owns the rockweed. Until we have enforceable laws protecting this critical fishery habitat, until we know what level of cutting is ecologically sustainable, and until we know who owns the seaweed, any commercial‑scale cutting of rockweed in Maine should stop."
Gilbert does not believe a seaweed management plan can address the issue of ownership of the resource. She notes, "That will have to be resolved by the courts." Although the legislature has been asked to consider bills that would settle the question of the right to harvest rockweed in the intertidal zone, no action has been taken.
The legislature's Marine Resources Committee will hold a hearing on LD 585 on Wednesday, March 20, at 1 p.m. in room 206 of the Cross Building in Augusta.