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June 28, 2018

Rockweed harvest continues to provoke debate

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. The company is working with the University of Maine on a study of the impact of rockweed harvesting on other species.

Landowners around Cobscook Bay in Washington County are raising concerns that rockweed harvesting operations there are destroying the habitat for other marine organisms and shorebirds.

The Quoddy Tides reported the landowners expressed concern that the rockweed harvesting is destroying the shoreline habitat. Cheryl Sawtelle, who lives on the North Lubec Road, told the newspaper that shorebirds, ducks, kingfishers and other marine-dependent organisms are gone because of rockweed cutting.

"I feel the food chain's been broken and we're out of time," she said.

Robin Hadlock Seeley of Pembroke, a Cornell University senior research scientist who advises the Rockweed Coalition, told the newspaper: “We know at least that rockweed harvest changes the architecture of the rockweed bed. And the commercial species of fish that depend on rockweed depend on habitat structure.”

But Merritt Carey, director of Maine operations for the Canadian rockweed processing company Acadian Seaplants, said Acadian is working with the University of Maine on a study of the impact of rockweed harvesting on other species.

Rockweed: A valuable resource

According to 2016 data, in Maine rockweed comprised over 95% of Maine's seaweed landings by weight over the previous five years.

An estimated 16.7 million pounds of rockweed was harvested in 2013, compared with 468,900 pounds of other seaweeds. Most rockweed in Maine is processed into two general product categories — nutritional supplements for animals and people and concentrated fertilizers.

With a total estimated value of $20 million per year, rockweed is one of Maine's most valuable marine resources. It is also an essential component of Maine's intertidal zone, providing food, shelter and spawning habitat for a variety of small marine organisms.

Maine Public reported that last year Acadian Seaplants was on the losing side of a Washington County Superior Court decision that affirmed that property owners can deny cutters the right to harvest; Acadian Seaplants has appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Current rockweed harvesting regulations rely on a science that treats the plant like grass, rather than as a habitat.

According to its website, the Rockweed Coalition promotes conservation of intertidal marine habitat, including rockweed, to protect Maine's fisheries and wildlife.

Other regions concerned as well

Earlier this year, residents of Stonington and Deer Isle expressed concern about noise from the machinery used to harvest rockweed in their area, as well as the potential for bycatch and the impact of harvesting on biodiversity. Island Advantages in April reported that Acadian Seaplants planned to harvest rockweed in the area this fall. The company hand-harvested until last year, when it added mechanical harvesting.

At a community meeting at that time, Carey said the company would work to reduce the noise, which increases as the boat's engine heats up.

Acadian Seaplants is one of the world's largest rockweed harvesters.

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