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July 26, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Seaweed harvester focusing on business as crucial court date nears

Courtesy / Acadian Seaplants Jean-Paul Deveau, president of Acadian Seaplants, a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, company that employs 50 rockweed harvesters and five full-time employees in Downeast Maine, is appealing a Washington County Superior Court decision that would require it to get permission from landowners to harvest seaweed in the intertidal zone between low and high tides.

Acadian Seaplants, one of the largest rockweed harvesters in the world, is doing business as usual until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court reviews documents related to a lower court’s ruling that would prevent it from harvesting rockweed in the state’s intertidal zones without permission of the owner.

Jean-Paul Deveau, president of Acadian Seaplants, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, told Mainebiz that each side in the case has until mid-September to file briefs, while the deadline for amicus or “friend of the court” briefs is in August.

“Our position is that harvesters are in boat floaters in the water and use rakes to harvest,” he said. Acadian has 400 employees worldwide in about 12 countries, 35 researchers on staff and a dozen Ph.D. scientists to do R&D on marine plants from resource management to manufacturing of products.

The company in March lost a case brought by several Washington County landowners who said they owned the rights to the intertidal zone, the area between high and low tides. Ownership rights in that area have been in hot contention between landowners and seaweed harvesters for decades.

On March 14, Justice Harold Stewart, presiding in Washington County Superior Court, ruled that “rockweed/seaweed growing in the intertidal zone is private property owned exclusively by the fee owner, and is not owned by the state in trust for the public.”

He also wrote that rockweed harvesting doesn’t fit within the three protected public rights to the intertidal zone: fishing, fowling and navigation. "Harvesting a terrestrial plant is no more a fishing activity, such as worming, digging for mussels, trapping lobsters or dropping a line for fish clearly are, than is harvesting a tree the same as hunting or trapping wildlife."

The decision, Deveau said, has ramifications for all seaweed harvested in intertidal zones throughout Maine, not just in the area in Cobscook Bay, where the owners reside.

Until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court makes its ruling, which he expects in the spring of 2018, Deveau said Acadian will continue with business as usual in Maine. It employs five people full-time and has 50 harvesters working along the Down East coast. It also has U.S. sales and distribution operations in the Midwest, California and North Carolina promoting its Tasco animal feed and plant health products.

The intertidal zone

Deveau said he spends a lot of his time preparing for the upcoming case.

“The ramifications if the court decides against us are substantial,” he said. “We get a substantial amount of our rockweed from Maine. We’d still be able to operate, but I think companies in Maine could go out of business.”

He also pointed to the multiplier effect of Acadian’s business, which uses a Maine company to chop seaweed, and its purchase of boats and other equipment.

“The fundamental thing is there’s an industry in Maine and a lot of spinoffs. These are all multiples. This is in rural Maine, Washington County, where livelihoods are difficult,” he said. “Today it’s business as usual but a significant amount of my time is spent on this defense.”

Deveau said Acadian’s largest rockweed harvests are in Canada, Ireland and Maine, in that order. It just started harvesting in Scotland. There aren’t issues in Canada, he said, because the federal government owns the intertidal area from the high water mark down, and licenses are given out by provincial or federal governments. Acadian is licensed in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The business of rockweed

Rockweed comprises more than 50% of Acadian’s business, Deveau said. The company’s revenue is Canadian $80 million, or about U.S.$64 million. The company, founded in 1981 to manufacture green plant seaweed products, is profitable.

While Maine ranks third among its harvesting sites, the state still comprises a significant portion of its rockweed harvest, he said.

“The state of Maine has an abundance of Ascophyllum nodosum [rockweed], which is a type of seaweed,” he said. He described it as a long, stringy seaweed with bubbles in it every six to 12 inches. It can grow to six feet long.

It is not tasty to humans, he said, having tried it himself, but is used in animal feed or as a fertilizer.

“It has a sharp taste. I’ve chewed on it, but I think cows like its salt content,” he added. “Rockweed isn’t economically feasible to farm or cultivate,” he said, so his company harvests it mostly by hand in the intertidal zones. Harvesters work from a boat using a rake and cutters, following state Department of Marine Resources recommendations to leave 16 inches behind because juvenile periwinkles and other sea creatures live in the bottom of the rockweed.  

The rockweed is good as a natural fertilizer.

“It has good characteristics to grow crops. It helps release stress in plants, for example, during a drought of if it is too cold, to help the crops withstand that,” Deveau said. “It also acts like a natural fertilizer instead of using chemical fertilizers.”

Among the Maine companies that also make rockweed products are Atlantic Labs, North American Kelp and Ocean Organics, all of Waldoboro.

It’s these value-added products that make rockweed valuable. As harvested, rockweed brought in 3 cents per pound in 2016, when close to 14 million pounds worth $468,105 were harvested in Maine, according to DMR figures. Until 2007, pounds harvested rarely topped 7.6 million, but from 2008 on the harvesting topped 11.6 million pounds, with a high of 19.4 million pounds in 2014.

Deveau said he buys rockweed by the ton, and it cost C$48 per ton. So a harvester who brings in 20 tons a week can make about C$1,000.

Other businesses

Acadian does make some products for human consumption, as well as nutraceuticals and specialty ingredients.

It uses aquaculture to produce a different species of seaweed called Chondrus crispus, also known as Irish moss, which it uses to manufacture a product for the Japanese food market for seaweed salad.

It also sells a wild Irish moss from the ocean to FMC Corp. in Rockland to make a food gum material called carrageenan. Wild Irish moss also is used by beer brewers as a “fining” agent to get rid of the cloudy haze created by fermented grains and other ingredients.

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