So far James Young of Windham has had no complaints as a rockweed harvester in New Meadows River between Bath and Brunswick.
But Young, who switched this year to rockweed after 20 years as a sea urchin diver, said he doesn’t know what to expect when he heads Down East later this season.
Young is one of a half-dozen harvesters with approval this year to take rockweed from Cobscook Bay, a 40-square-mile body of water considered a biological hotspot for its biodiversity and the epicenter of a long-simmering dispute over the commercial harvest of rockweed.
The controversy made national headlines in 2008.
While the issue no longer dominates the agenda of Washington County commissioners — complaints about unusual amounts of cut rockweed floating about have abated and many of the harvest boats have disappeared from the bay — the issue continues to fester. Many believe it is just a matter of time before it resurfaces as the demand for rockweed products keeps rising.
At issue is the humble, Ascophyllum nodosum, the ubiquitous olive-green seaweed that coats Maine’s rocky intertidal zone. While it has long been harvested for food and fertilizer, disputes between landowners and harvesters have cropped up in the past decade as rockweed’s commercial value rose.
Rockweed is used as a fertilizer, food additive, in packaging for bait and lobster, in cosmetics and as a nutritional supplement for animals and people. The harvest has nearly doubled from 4.7 million pounds in 2001 to 8.7 million pounds last year.
About 115 people hold state licenses to harvest seaweed, which is sold to a half-dozen processors from Brunswick to Lubec. They include Source Inc. with offices in Brunswick, North American Kelp in Waldboro and Acadian Seaplants Ltd., a Canadian company with offices in Pembroke on Cobscook Bay.
It is largely harvested mechanically from boats between the high- and low-tide marks.
Criticism reached a boiling point in 2008 with an influx or harvesters into Cobscook Bay, known for its 24-foot average tides and large quantities of rockweed. Tensions rose between those worried about the ecological impact of the harvest and those worried about the economy of Maine’s poorest county.
“There are a lot of people making a good summer income and there are businesses considering more processing facilities,” said harvesting proponent George Seaver, vice president of the Maine Seaweed Council.
On the other side were the town of Pembroke, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Quoddy Regional Land Trust — now the Downeast Coastal Conservancy — and the Rockweed Coalition. Opponents urged the state to prevent large-scale harvesting until its impact on the bay’s ecosystem was better understood.
“There are two definitions of sustainable, one the seaweed companies use and the one ecologists use,” said Robin Hadlock Seeley, a director of the Rockweed Coalition and a marine biologist.
The Maine Legislature responded to the controversy in 2009 by passing the state’s first management plan for rockweed, setting up regional sectors in Cobscook Bay and requiring harvesters to submit a plan that would remove no more than 17 percent of the rockweed biomass in the bay.
At the same time, opponents beefed up their efforts to add shoreline to the Downeast Coastal Conservancy’s nonharvest registry, which is a list of shorefront landowners who do not want the rockweed in the intertidal zone harvested. The list has grown from 100 last year to 504 this spring.
The number of harvesters decreased, with only two submitting harvest plans in 2009 and four in 2010, although several of those were inactive. This year six harvesters submitted plans.
“The industry has done a good job. They have made some internal changes,” said Washington County Commission Chairman Chris Gardner.
But the issue continues to simmer over unanswered questions about property rights and the impact of rockweed harvesting on the ecosystem.
While scientists agree that rockweed grows back when properly harvested — leaving at least 16 inches of the plant base — no one knows how harvesting impacts periwinkles and other organisms that live in its canopy.
“The long-term effect on other organisms is nearly an impossible question to put a finer point on because there are so many factors” to consider,” said Pete Thayer, marine resources scientist at the Department of Marine Resources.
Just who owns the rockweed is also in question. Rockweed grows in the intertidal zone, which in Maine belongs to waterfront property owners but remains open to the public for navigation, fishing and hunting rights.
The Maine Seaweed Council and other seaweed harvest proponents say that seaweed harvesting falls under those rights.
But the Maine Attorney General’s office says the laws are far from clear.
“The case law in Maine does not provide a definitive answer,” wrote former Attorney General Steven Rowe to a request for clarification about seaweed harvesting rights from Maine Department of Marine Resources.
So far no one has filed a court case that would decide the issue. Both opponents and proponents say they are frustrated by the lack of answers.
Some seaweed companies say they are putting their plans for expansion in Maine on hold.
“We would love to move the company to Maine but I am reluctant,” said Susan Domizi, owner of Connecticut-based Source Inc., which makes nutritional supplements from rockweed harvested off Harpswell.
Jane Arbuckle, director of stewardship at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said her organization might change its opposition to rockweed harvesting if research showed it didn’t endanger the environment.
“We would step back and consider it,” she said.
Some shoreline property owners say the issue has left them uncertain about what to do. John Leighton of Pembroke initially added his shoreline property to the registry, then removed it. Now, he said, he may register it.
“Until they get it straightened out, I am going to put it back on,” said Leighton.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: