The controversy over rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay, which had simmered down this summer, may begin again soon, as three individuals are planning to start harvesting in the bay this fall, using a mechanical harvester being built in Eastport. Harvesting has not been occurring in the bay this season, since there was a significant increase in the number of landowners on a no-harvest registry, and Acadian Seaplants, a Nova Scotia based company, is respecting those landowners' wishes. Acadian reportedly concentrated its Maine operations in the Jonesport area this year.
The three other harvesters who have Cobscook Bay harvesting plans approved by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) C Bob Morse of North American Kelp of Waldoboro, George "Butch" Harris of Eastport and Patrick Driscoll of Yarmouth, who formerly lived in Robbinston C have formed a joint venture arrangement to begin using a mechanical harvester later this year. According to Morse, their eventual plans are to have 10 to 20 boats harvesting in the bay and a processing plant at Deep Cove that would employ perhaps 10 or more people. The plant would make kelp meal for feed stock for other products and animal feed supplements. "We process 12 months of the year," Morse notes, adding that North American Kelp offers contracts to buy the seaweed, with the harvesting boats run by owner/operators.
Harris and Driscoll built a mechanical harvester last year that is now working in the mid-coast region for North American Kelp, as it was not powerful enough to handle the tides in Cobscook Bay. Recently they completed a second boat, a 20' x 8' mechanical harvesting vessel that was designed by Morse and then redesigned and built by Harris and Driscoll. The vessel was purchased by Tim Cranston of Eurocan Bio-Marine of Halifax, who will use it to harvest rockweed in the Halifax area, creating six jobs there. Harris and Driscoll are now finishing a third vessel that will be used in Cobscook Bay and shared by Morse, Harris and Driscoll.
Cranston notes that in Nova Scotia, "We're required to operate a facility for processing in order to maintain a lease for harvesting from the provincial government. We have to process the raw resource."
Acadian Seaplants had not continued with a harvest in Cobscook Bay this season, after the number of landowners on the no-cut registry increased by three and a half times, from 90 to 324. The increase occurred after a mailing about the impacts of the harvest on the ecosystem was sent out by the Rockweed Coalition. Acadian indicated it would respect the no-cut registry, while Morse says, "We will abide by all laws of the state" and notes that no state law says rockweed harvesters are prohibited from harvesting on lands that have been placed on the no-harvest registry. However, the question of who owns the rockweed in the intertidal zone has not been clearly resolved.
Morse points to a 2003 Maine Supreme Court decision that found a landowner has a right to build a pier in the intertidal zone but does not own the resources there. An analysis conducted in 2007 for the Maine Seaweed Council by a public trust attorney concludes that seaweed growing in the intertidal zone "was never intended to be conveyed into exclusive private ownership" and that harvesters "need not seek permission of any riparian proprietor." Morse says, "It's settled law. The intertidal zone is not separated from the 200 miles of ocean."
Concerning whether a court case would be needed to settle the ownership question, Morse says, "What do you want a court case for? Why do you want to determine what's already been determined?"
However, DMR Deputy Commissioner David Etnier says, "The ownership question can only be resolved by the courts." The department consistently has not taken a position on the question of ownership, with the Attorney General's Office advising the DMR not to do so. Etnier adds that the DMR has not been working with Morse on resolving the question of ownership of the resource.
Impact of harvest and allocation of sectors
In its mailing, the Rockweed Coalition had stated concerns about the impacts of the harvest on the ecosystem. Concerning the sustainability of the harvest, Morse says that mechanical harvesters "are more economical" at shearing off the seaweed and that the operator can control the height of the cut better. Under state law, the minimum cutting height is 16" and the lowest lateral branches must not be disturbed. "The top of the plant is where 60% of the mass is," says Morse. "From an economic point of view, we don't want to cut lower than that." He adds, "We want to get a video made to show to the landowners to stop this hysteria."
Along with his disputes with those who oppose a harvest, Morse is also contending with Acadian Seaplants. "They've tried to put me out of business with $400 a ton subsidies from Canada," he alleges. Morse maintains that Acadian, a Canadian company, not only was processing the resource taken from Maine in Canada but was "making it so no one else could harvest in Cobscook."
According to Morse, Acadian Seaplants wanted to be able to harvest from 82% of Cobscook Bay, overlaid its proposed sectors on all of North American Kelp's sectors in the bay and was unwilling to negotiate over the sector allocation. The DMR initially said there then would be no harvest this year, but the Attorney General's Office said there had to be one, according to Morse. "So we had to negotiate with Acadian," he says.
The dispute over harvesting sectors held up Morse, Harris and Driscoll's decision to build new boats. Their harvesting this year has been delayed because of the delay in building the boats and not because of the additional number of shorefront owners who added their names to the no-harvest list, Morse says.
Deputy Commissioner Etnier says that the law is clear that the harvesters had to meet to negotiate for the allocation of sectors in the bay and they had failed to do that. The four plans that were submitted in March could not be accepted because there was considerable overlap within the sectors. "We can't allow multiple parties in one sector," says Etnier. The four harvesters were then given until April 2 to meet to allocate the sectors. Because they did not meet, the commissioner of marine resources determined the potential allocations for each sector. Under the 2010 harvest plans approved by the state, Acadian Seaplants is licensed to harvest 1,501 short tons in Cobscook Bay; North American Kelp, 879 short tons; Butch Harris, 740 short tons; and Patrick Driscoll, 506 short tons.
Last year the total harvest was 1,200 short tons, or approximately 4% of the available rockweed biomass in the bay. Under state law, the maximum allowable amount that can be harvested in any management sector in Cobscook Bay is 17%. If the total amount that was allocated this year was harvested, it would total 12% of the available biomass.