June 12, 2011

Rockweed harvesting concerns likely will resurface Down East

Questions about property rights and impact on the ecosystem in Cobscook Bay remain unanswered.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Rockweed, shown in South Portland, is used as a fertilizer, food additive, in packaging for bait and lobster, in cosmetics and as a nutritional supplement.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

ABOUT ROCKWEED

In 2001 the harvest was 4.7 million pounds worth $84,138.

In 2010 the harvest was 8.7 million pounds worth $174,528.

Thirty-three species use rockweed in the Gulf of Maine, including perwinkles, sea urchins and snails, which graze on it.

It is the most abundant seaweed in Maine’s intertidal zone.

Rockweed accumulates nutrients from seawater, which makes it useful as a fertilizer and nutritional supplement.

Seaweed harvest licenses cost $58 for residents, $230 for nonresidents.

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:

bquimby@pressherald.com

 

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