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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Rockweed

Air Date: Week of December 8, 2000

The seaweed industry is an important part of coastal communities around the world. One type of seaweed called rockweed is among several that have been harvested in Maine for the last three decades. But when a Canadian seaweed company made plans to harvest rockweed in Cobscook Bay, Maine near the Canadian border, scientists and fishermen joined together to call for a moratorium on harvesting in the area. Naomi Schalit reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Rockweed is a slippery, brownish seaweed that grows near the ocean's edge. Try to walk over it at high tide and you could easily slip and fall. Rockweed also supports a major industry across the North Atlantic. From Norway to Iceland, Canada, and Maine, it's cut and processed into fertilizer and animal feed and then sold around the world. Maine's rockweed is mostly taken along the state's mid-coast. But as Naomi Schalit reports, when a Canadian company planned to pick rockweed from one pristine spot near the U.S./Canada border, some Mainers put up a fight.

(Splashing water)

HODGKINS: This is the boat landing at Cobscook Bay. And as you look ahead, you see the Sisters. They're called the Sisters because they look so much alike.

SCHALIT: Julie Keene Hodgkins grew up on Cobscook Bay. She descends from a family of lighthouse keepers, and she's fished and clammed all her life. And from as far back as she can remember, she was fascinated by rockweed.

HODGKINS: And we used to peer into the water, and we could see all the baby fish, harbor pollack, little flounder, crabs, wrinkles, whelks, limpets, everything. And it was just like peering into an aquarium. This was in the rockweed. It was so full of life, and I grew up knowing that the ocean is full of life but it does start in the rockweed.

SCHALIT: Life in the rockweed includes periwinkle, sea urchins, and other invertebrates. The plant serves as a nursery ground for herrings, scallops, and larval lobsters. When waves surge and pieces of rockweed break off, they eventually form floating mats filled with insects and other animals that provide forage for migratory birds. And this plant that scientists call "the topsoil of the sea" also feeds an industry in this coastal state.

(Cutting)

SCHALIT: Here at Atlantic Labs, one of Maine's oldest seaweed processors, huge one-ton balls of wet briny rockweed sit outside. Inside, dried, chopped rockweed is being thrown off a conveyor belt.

MORSE: We've got nets that have been mechanically harvested at the shore of rockweed that have been brought up this morning fresh from the shore. And we're running them through the dehydrator to dry them down, so that we can preserve the seaweed for the different uses that we put the rockweed to.

SCHALIT: That's Bob Morse, who is founder and President of Atlantic Labs. He also heads the Maine Seaweed Council. Maine's seaweed industry began almost 30 years ago and is located mostly along the central coast. The state's 120 licensed harvesters cut about 3,000 metric tons a year of rockweed and Irish moss and other seaweeds. But Maine's industry is small potatoes compared to eastern maritime Canada, where lone processor Acadian Seaplants harvests 11,000 tons a year, the amount their government limits them to. Acadian's second plant can handle almost double that amount. So the company turned to Maine this year to harvest. They put up posters in communities around Cobscook Bay, offering to hire locals. And they met with resistance.

BROOKS: Cobscook Bay is really the heart of our region, and that's not just geographic. It's also got to do with the extraordinary ecological value of Cobscook Bay as well, its importance for the local communities.

SCHALIT: Alan Brooks is head of the Quoddy Regional Land Trust, a conservation group whose focus is the Cobscook Bay region. He joined local fishermen here to protest Acadian's plans. Brooks and area fishermen point to scientific evidence that rockweed's where much of the bay's life begins and is sustained. Unlike other coastal areas in Maine, where rockweed has been harvested for decades, Cobscook Bay is relatively untouched and undeveloped. And local fishermen and environmentalists like Brooks fear a collapse of the thriving fishery if rockweed is harvested.

BROOKS: Cobscook Bay really has the highest diversity of marine invertebrate life on the East Coast, north of the tropics. It's internationally significant for that reason. Harvesting rockweed directly undercuts the productivity and the diversity of the bay, not just through removal of biomass but through removal of habitat that's either directly or indirectly used by many different species.

SCHALIT: Brooks and other protestors want to ban rockweed harvesting from Cobscook Bay until research is done that says removing it is safe. They point to a disastrous overharvesting of rockweed in Nova Scotia during the 80's as evidence that it's not safe to harvest it here. In many places in Nova Scotia, the rockweed barely grew back. But Atlantic Labs processor Bob Morse says that what happened in Nova Scotia won't necessarily happen in Maine. He says that in his mid-coast area, the harvest has been sustainable, and the same could be true for Cobscook Bay.

MORSE: I've harvested 30 years without regulations, and we don't have any depletion on how we harvest.

SCHALIT: But there is conflicting evidence. Researchers at the University of Maine have found that some older rockweed beds don't regenerate after cutting. Overall, there has been little research on the effects of long-term harvesting. Regulation of the rockweed harvest in Maine is light. The state's recently passed rules, for example, have no harvest limits. They simply require harvesters to report their rockweed take and to leave at least 16 inches of the plant attached to the rock on which it grows. It's that degree of scientific uncertainty and the lack of comprehensive regulation that's led the Cobscook Bay Fishermen's Association, local Native Americans, and area conservationists to call for a moratorium on harvesting there. But Maine's Department of Marine Resources chief George LaPointe says he's not going to grant one.

LaPOINTE: Clearly, rockweed is a major plant in the Cobscook Bay area. And you want to pay attention to your plant base, like you do anywhere else. But if you use that line of reasoning, do we allow no timber harvest? Inherently, that doesn't make sense to me.

SCHALIT: Anti-harvest advocates say they'll go around LaPointe and ask the state legislature to impose a long-term moratorium that will allow time for studies to be done. They have yet to find a sponsor for a bill before the mid-December legislative deadline. For their part, Acadian Seaplants officials declined to comment on tape. The company publicly stated their plans for harvesting in Cobscook Bay earlier this year, and according to Julie Keene Hodgkins and other fishermen, advertised for workers. But an Acadian Seaplants spokesperson says they did not harvest in Cobscook Bay last summer and they are unsure of the company's future plans in the area.

(Gulls)

SCHALIT: For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Edmunds, Maine.

 

 

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