Proposed legislation that would significantly expand the regulation of rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay has received a unanimous "ought to pass as amended" recommendation by the legislature's Marine Resources Committee. Passage of the emergency statute by both houses is expected in the current session, which is scheduled to end on June 17. The harvest of Ascophyllum nodosum in Cobscook Bay has been the subject of controversy for several years, but particularly since the 2008 season when some conservationists, upland property owners, scientists, public officials, fishermen and others protested the practices of Acadian Seaplants Ltd., the company that organized the harvest and processed the product in its Pennfield, N.B., plant.
If passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, the bill, as an emergency measure, would take effect immediately and apply to this year's harvest, set to begin this month. LD 345, An Act to Regulate the Rockweed Harvest in Cobscook Bay, was sponsored by Senator Kevin Raye of Perry.
The law would create a new licensing category for seaweed buyers who purchase more than 10 wet tons annually directly from licensed harvesters, with a fee of $200 for a resident and $500 for a nonresident. A buyer's surcharge would also be established, with a fee set by the commissioner of marine resources, not to exceed $5 per wet ton. The fees and surcharges would be deposited in a seaweed management fund.
The commissioner would identify sections of the bay to be closed to commercial harvesting, including public and private conservation areas, state parks, federally owned lands and lobster nursery areas. In addition, the commissioner would identify, for the purpose of research, up to 30 acres in the bay where harvesting would be banned. The commissioner would be further required to divide the harvestable area C called the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area C into 14 harvest sectors.
Commercial harvesters would notify the commissioner of their intent to harvest prior to January 1 of the proposed year, meet to allocate sectors among themselves, and submit a harvest plan to the commissioner by March 1. The harvest plan would identify sector locations, report the total biomass in each and the amount to be harvested, and describe extraction methods, bycatch management and harvester training. The plans would be made available to the public by March 1.
A limit of 17% would be placed on the total biomass that could be removed in a sector annually, and as of January 1, 2010, the harvest report would be verified by an independent third party. Harvesters would have to make reasonable efforts to return bycatch alive into the bay "as soon as practicable." Violations of the proposed law's prohibitions related to the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area carry penalties, with fines of not less than $1,000 a day.
By January 15, 2010, the commissioner would report to the Marine Resources Committee recommendations for a seaweed research plan for Cobscook Bay as well as submit a report on the 2009 harvest in the bay. Depending on the report, the committee would have the authority to submit additional regulatory legislation to the second session of the legislature.
In addition to the proposed statutory requirements, the legislative committee intends to notify potential harvesters by letter of their continuing interest in the sustainable harvest of rockweed in Cobscook Bay and the seaweed's importance as habitat for other species. The letter, as discussed among committee members during work sessions, would address harvesters' obligation to return bycatch to the bay and to observe "no cut" areas specified in the bill as well as those identified in a "voluntary registry" maintained by the Quoddy Regional Land Trust (QRLT). While compliance with the registry is not mandated in the final version of the proposed bill, committee members say they expect harvesters to honor the wishes of upland owners who register their preference with the land trust.
The concept of a "no cut" registry had been the subject of much testimony and discussion as the bill was being drafted in committee. Initially, a clause requiring the commissioner to maintain the registry was included, and later there was consideration of a requirement that would obligate the QRLT to assume that responsibility. References to a commissioner's registry were removed when the committee found itself wading into such unsettled legal issues as property owners' rights in the intertidal zone, public trust rights asserted by industry representatives, and the question of "ownership of the rockweed."
Committee members said that such matters should and probably will be decided in the state's courts.
At the committee's final work session on May 13, called to review and amend language in the proposed bill, Deputy Commissioner David Etnier of the Department of Marine Resources expressed the agency's dissatisfaction with the proposed legislation. Referring to testimony presented by conservationists at the April 8 committee hearing, Etnier said, "The department remains convinced the situation in Cobscook Bay was not as bad [in 2008] as has been portrayed by some, in photos and otherwise." Alluding to restrictions that could affect employment opportunities in economically depressed Washington County, Etnier added, "We regret how this has turned out with respect to people who are trying to make a living in Cobscook Bay."
As he spoke, Etnier referred to a document prepared by John Sowles, director of DMR's ecology division, and dated May 13. Entitled "Corrections/rebuttals to statements at hearing and work sessions," the paper outlines 14 points of disagreement with testimony that had been offered to the committee by proponents of a moratorium on harvesting. The Quoddy Tides has since obtained a copy of Sowles' paper, as well as a May 18 response to it that was prepared by Robin Hadlock Seeley, PhD, one of those who had testified in favor of stricter control of rockweed extraction.
Sowles' paper challenges statements he said were made to the committee that federal and state lands on the bay are now closed to rockweed harvesting, that rockweed is "the ecological driver" of the bay and provides it with important nutrients, that cutting destroys habitat "architecture" or permanently changes habitat, and that harvest rates are unsustainable. He questions assertions he cites about periwinkle loss and harm to other species, negative effects of mechanical harvesting, the amount of "nuisance drift weed" in the bay and allegations that DMR uses a "single species approach." As for photos that were displayed to the committee and described as evidence of rockweed "damage," Sowles says they are "not representative of overall conditions" in the bay.
In her written response, Seeley, a marine scientist from Cornell University who has conducted research in Cobscook Bay for 25 years, defends each of the 14 claims and offers counter arguments to Sowles' charges. She says in an accompanying letter to the committee, "Many of Dr. Sowles' statements are factually incorrect, while others represent a personal and individual interpretation of information." According to Seeley, Sowles' 14 points and her rebuttals to each will soon be posted on the website of the Rockweed Coalition at <http://www.rockweedcoalition.org>.
Seeley also notes in her letter that she and Sowles "have tentatively planned to meet in Cobscook Bay in the near future so that he can see the locations of the photos of rockweed shortcuts and rockweed bed damage."