ROBBINSTON — As a plaintiff along with my brother Carl in Ross v. Acadian Seaplants Ltd., the rockweed case, I’ve long listened to and read the viewpoints of the harvesters. Here is my story.

On Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays in the 1940s, I waded among the urchins, snails, mussels, hermit crabs, sand dollars and starfish; small flounders brushed my ankles. Above, gulls circled, ospreys dove for fish, eagles swooped at them to steal the fish.

Schools of herring flowed along the shore. Migrating salmon jumped out of water, and I counted 21 loons at once. Large pollock surfaced in the rockweed. We kids filled our buckets with clams to sell or cook over a fire, at clambakes on the beach surrounded by wildlife and beautiful scenery. It was a great privilege to grow up on the Maine coast.

Now almost all these creatures are scarce or gone. Seems we overdid the harvesting and polluting. Invasive green crabs are eating the clams, and increasing acidification threatens all shellfish. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other ocean body, with unpleasant results on the way. Sea-level rise is eroding my shoreline and everybody else’s.

About 20 years ago, companies started mass-cutting the rockweed and marketing it, mostly for fertilizer. The total seawood harvest (of which rockweed accounts for about 95 percent) escalated from a very low level to over 20 million pounds, worth 4 cents a pound at the dock, in 2018. Public-relations people labeled it “sustainable” jobs to replace declining fisheries – no harm done. Supported by the Department of Marine Resources, harvesters cut virtually everywhere, including parks and nature sanctuaries. Rockweed on National Audubon’s Hog Island has been repeatedly cut by machine.

Is this good news or more bad? To a rockweed harvester, a “sustainable” harvest leaves enough so it can be cut every three years. But cut rockweed grows back bushy; it takes about 10-16 years to regain its original height. Three-year cuts won’t allow it to reach its height. Black ducks and eiders will get less food, and young cod, herring and pollock will lose habitat. And the shortened rockweed can’t slow the high-tide wave action that erodes the shorelines.

U.N. ocean fishing standards, as well as common sense, call for caution when in doubt. Before permitting mass rockweed removal, we need to know much more: What impact does it have on species of finfish and shellfish, and on the fisheries? On birds and such factors as erosion? And tourism, given that people come to Maine to see nature? Very little of this study has been done.

Harvesters claim they take only 1 percent of the total Maine coast rockweed annually, far less than the amount detached naturally. They don’t mention that the natural castoff rockweed stays in the bays and rots to feed clams, mussels, and scallops. Or that the 1 percent comes from a few areas, some of them nature preserves, magnifying the impact there. Or that a 1 percent change in part of a complex and fragile ecosystem can have a much greater impact on other parts. And the industry has vowed to continue increasing the harvest.

Mass cutting of wild rockweed in Maine has been a blind, poorly conducted, irresponsible, destructive and unnecessary experiment at the expense of the Maine coast. Two big mistakes have been made.

First, large-scale rockweed removal is not ecologically sustainable because the rockweed forest is a base of the food web. It stands to reason and science that tearing out or significantly altering a foundation of our inshore ecosystem damages what depends on it. Removing rockweed undercuts wildlife and traditional fisheries. It turns the wild shorefront into a rockweed lawn, as has reportedly already happened in Nova Scotia, putting nails in the coffin of a healthy, natural coast.

Second, ownership of rockweed was considered unclear by both the Maine Attorney General’s Office and DMR, yet harvesting continued to increase.

I helped take the ownership question to court, and hope that landowners will appreciate and protect their rockweed forests for their value to wildlife and the coastal ecosystem. The 7-0 Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision that rockweed belongs to the upland landowner is also a victory for commercial fisheries, wildlife, tourism, the ocean and Maine.   

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