News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 12, 2018
Residents hear about rockweed harvesting along the coast

Residents hear about rockweed harvesting

Merritt Carey of Acadian Seaplants, a Canadian-based company that plans to harvest rockweed on the island, gives an overview of the company practices to an audience in Stonington April 9.

Photo by Faith DeAmbrose Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Faith DeAmbrose

Last year, the coast of Stonington was among the areas where rockweed was harvested by Canadian-based Acadian Seaplants. The company, which plans to again harvest in town and in Deer Isle in late fall, sent a biologist and an attorney to address islanders about the company’s upcoming plans.

Rockweed, a seaweed that is typically found on rocky shores in inter-tidal zones, is considered a fishery in the state of Maine and is regulated by the Department of Marine Resources. “It is the last truly open fishery,” said Merritt Carey, Director of Maine Operations for Acadian Seaplants.

To date, the DMR has issued 134 licenses to seaweed harvesters who either hand harvest or use a mechanized boat to remove seaweed from the water.

Acadian Seaplants, a company that has been harvesting the resource since 1981, uses it to produce food and supplements for humans and animals, and as fertilizer.

The company, which had exclusively hand-harvested until last year, recently added mechanical harvesting to its portfolio, and that practice seemed most concerning to those in attendance, both because of the noise as well as the potential for damage to the stock.

“It’s noisy,” Carey acknowledged of the sound coming from the boat’s diesel engine, adding that as the engine heats up, the frequent removal of the engine casing causes the noise to increase. She said the company was aware and would work to reduce the noise the best it could.

Residents also expressed concerns over the possibility for bycatch, when other sea creatures are caught in the harvest, and the impact of harvesting on biodiversity. Carey said there was virtually no bycatch associated with mechanized harvesting, a claim that was sharply challenged by many in attendance who said that rockweed beds are diverse and contain other living creatures.

“Tell your scientists to come down here and I will show them around,” said John Robbins after asserting that he has, at times, witnessed numbers of lobsters in rockweed beds.

The science and management

The company manages the resource in a sustainable way, said Alison Feibel, a resident of Belfast and Acadian’s Resource Biologist. According to information provided, she said that first aerial photographs (or satellite imagery) is taken of a site, then from those images rockweed beds are identified. Next, image analysis software determines the amount of coverage in the area, and each bed is given an identification number.

From there, assessment teams visit each bed, setting transects to mark sections, and then taking samples to determine bed cover, density, length and weight.

Fiebel also said that annual management plans are developed for each usable area and that the company, despite there being no regulation about harvesting limits, chooses to cut only 17 percent of each bed, and cuts to ensure that 16 inches remain.

A current legal battle

Legally, a battle over who actually owns the areas where rockweed is harvested is moving through Maine’s court system and the outcome could effect the fishery. At the crux of the legal argument is whether the activity constitutes fishing and is protected in the ways in which clamming and worming are throughout the state.

Acadian Seaplants is the defendant in the suit, and on March 21, a judge found for the plaintiffs, property owners from Washington County, finding that rockweed was considered personal property and therefore not a protected fishery. As such, landowner permission would be needed for harvesting to occur.

That decision will be appealed, said Carey, and while going through the appeal process, harvesting is allowed to continue. “If we lose, we won’t be able to harvest without landowner permission and if we win, it will be business as usual,” she said. She said it was the company’s intention to “keep investing and harvesting in Maine.”