Scrapping Over Seaweed
Harvesters of periwinkles and rockweed are crossing paths in eastern Maine.
- By: Colin Woodard
It’s low tide in easternmost Maine, and Julie Keene is scampering along the rocky, seaweed-covered shore of one of Cobscook Bay’s many inlets. The tides in these parts are the largest in the state, falling by twenty feet to expose vast stretches of the bottom, where local folks like Keene often go to make their living. At one point or another this Lubec native has done it all: dug clams, foraged for mussels, or picked periwinkles, which are sought after by Asian consumers.
“There are so many of us on this bay, from Lubec all around to Eastport, who have been in the fishery our whole lives, people who used to pack sardines, people who have no other education — we are so economically dependent on this bay,” says Keene. Her father and grandfather were light keepers at West Quoddy Head — a peninsula other ancestors once owned — and her first job was at one of Lubec’s long-defunct sardine canneries, where her mother and grandmother also worked.
Indeed, much of eastern Washington County’s economy revolves around multi-chambered Cobscook Bay, from scallop and urchin dragging to salmon aquaculture and ongoing experiments with tidal energy generation. But in this, the poorest county in Maine, many turn to picking periwinkles — “wrinkles” in local parlance — to make ends meet when other fisheries are closed, or to buy groceries when they’ve got no other source of income.
“There’s women on welfare, you see them in the wintertime soaking wet, covered in mud, tired, cold, and they’re in the store cashing a thirty-dollar wrinkle check to buy diapers or a five-gallon can of heating fuel,” Keene says as she lifts thick mats of rockweed to reveal the periwinkles nestled underneath. “It’s what gets people through the winter or through red tides” when clam flats are closed.
But Keene fears the common periwinkle — and indeed the entire ecological balance of Cobscook Bay — is under threat from the bay’s newest industry: commercial seaweed harvesting. Operating from small boats, the harvesters have been taking thousands of tons of rockweed out of the bay for the past two years, an activity Keene fears is destroying the habitat for periwinkles, clam spat, juvenile fish, and a host of other organisms. She’s been doing all she can to put a stop to it.
“When the tide rises up and lifts the rockweed, it’s basically like an old-growth forest because it had never been cut,” says Robin Hadlock Seeley, a researcher at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory who teamed up with Keene to try and stop the brown seaweed from being harvested. “It provides so many ecological services. If you’re going to leave one thing alone in the bay, it seems like this is it.”
Their protests — and the scientific and public relations battle that’s followed — put the hardscrabble communities of eastern Maine in an uproar, and again raised questions about who really owns Maine’s seaweed: the state or the adjacent landowner. And with demand for rockweed growing, large-scale harvesters will continue spreading down Maine’s coast, which is the southernmost region where the brown algae can be profitably mowed. Any such expansion may well bring similar concerns in its wake.
When Keene and Seeley started raising questions about the Cobscook harvest in the summer of 2008, they found plenty of allies. Fishermen, lobstermen, and wrinklers — all concerned that unusually large quantities of free-floating seaweed were choking the waterways — joined a protest they organized in Lubec that July. The Cobscook Bay Fishermen’s Association, Passamaquoddy Tribal Council, and the town of Pembroke called for a moratorium. The Quoddy Regional Land Trust began collecting a long list of property owners who didn’t want the rockweed on their shoreline harvested.
“If I went to fill up my car with gas or went to the post office or the grocery store, I ran into someone who was concerned about it,” recalls Kevin Raye, of Perry, who represents the region in the Maine Senate and prompted legislators to review the situation. “People were concerned across the board.”
It didn’t help that the company that organized the harvest, Acadian Seaplants, is based in far-off Nova Scotia, and that many of its harvesters were inexperienced. Going out in open skiffs with handheld cutting rakes, some of them may have cut rockweed shorter than sixteen inches, one of the few regulations imposed by Maine law and intended to ensure the plant can regrow. “They were pretty much cutting anywhere in the bay they wanted, and in some cases cutting very badly,” says Alan Brooks, executive director of the Quoddy Regional Land Trust, which has since merged with the Great Auk Land Trust to become the Downeast Coastal Conservancy. “Acadian Seaplants learned a number of lessons from a very bad experiment.”
Changes came down from on high, thanks in no small part to Keene and Seeley’s efforts. This past spring, the legislature passed an emergency measure that imposed tough new rules for Cobscook Bay rockweed harvesters. The bay would be divided up into harvest sectors, and harvesters couldn’t take more than 17 percent of the available rockweed in a given year. An effort had to be made to return periwinkles and other bycatch to the water. Large parts of the bay were declared no-harvest zones, including areas adjacent to state parks, and harvesters were strongly advised to respect the wishes of private landowners, even though it’s unclear if they own the rockweed under Maine law.
So how did the 2009 season turn out, and is everyone happy now? The short answers: pretty good and no.
By all accounts, the harvest went much smoother than last year, even though a second harvester — Butch Harris, of Eastport — has joined in with a mechanical rockweed cutter. Senator Raye says nobody has complained to him this year, and Seeley, who has been monitoring the harvest under a grant from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, says the regulations have led to a considerable improvement.
Acadian Seaplants Vice President Rex Hunter thinks the company, and seaweed harvesting in general, have gotten a bad rap. “I don’t think we did things horribly at all in 2008,” he says, seated at a table in the company’s Pembroke office on the last day of the season this past October. If any short-cutting happened, it was limited and accidental, and all that rockweed in the water wasn’t their doing, he says.
Acadian — which employs one full-time and up to twenty-five part-time and contract workers in Maine — ships all its Maine rockweed to a World War II-era military airfield in Pennfield, New Brunswick. From the Trans-Canada Highway you can glimpse hundreds of tons of rockweed laid out on the runways to dry. Much of it will be turned into fertilizer or animal feed, for which there is a growing global demand.
Hunter, whose firm also harvests off Jonesport, says it’s in the company’s interest not to over-harvest the resource, and that its long track record demonstrates its practices are benign. “Seaweed recovers quickly,” he points out. “It’s like mowing your lawn: it grows right back.”
Indeed, the best available science supports him. Two scientists with decades of experience in Cobscook Bay — Peter Larsen of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and Tom Trott of Suffolk University — conducted an experiment for the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) involving two plots of Cobscook shoreline. After an initial census of organisms and rockweed abundance in July 2008, Acadian was asked to harvest 17 percent of the biomass from one of the plots. In September, the researchers returned for a side-by-side comparison of the harvested and unharvested plots.
“There was no significant difference between the plots in the abundance of animals either on the substrate or on the rockweed between July and September,” says Mr. Larsen, adding that most animals were found on the substrate, not on the plants, and that there was no statistical difference in the numbers of periwinkles. As for the rockweed itself, by September there was actually slightly more biomass in the harvested patch than in the unharvested one. “This is a common occurrence,” he says. “It seems harvesting stimulates growth.”
Acadian Seaplants also has a quarter-century track record in the Maritimes, including fifteen years harvesting seaweed just across the border in New Brunswick, where it also harvests only up to 17 percent of biomass but is allowed to cut even shorter on the plants than it is in Maine. Back in 1995, that province was also up in arms, with fishermen and conservationists opposing the harvest over fears of adverse ecosystem and fisheries effects. But those fears never materialized, says Tom McEachreon, a rockweed specialist at the provincial fisheries department. “We haven’t had any negative feedback from stakeholder groups, and no evidence of adverse effects,” he says.
In southern and midcoast Maine, smaller-scale operators have been harvesting rockweed for years. (Their combined take — 7 million pounds — is about the same as Acadian’s 2008 harvest.) In recent years there have been no complaints about them having caused ecological or fisheries effects, according to David Etnier, DMR’s deputy commissioner.
Paul Molyneaux of Trescott, a former wrinkler and scalloper, thinks there’s a double standard at work. “The draggers in that bay have removed tons and tons of seaweed, because the standard procedure is to make one tow to clear the seaweed off the rocks and then go back to make another for scallops and urchins,” says Molyneaux, adding he’s witnessed the practice. “So if those wrinklers are all freaking out about the loss of seaweed, why aren’t they attacking the draggers? Because it’s their neighbors, not some foreign company.”
Now the Cobscook fight is one for hearts and minds, as the commercial harvesters’ production targets can’t be met if large numbers of shorefront landowners join the no-harvest list. Hunter’s team invites anybody to come out and see their harvest in action, and has convinced a few owners to take themselves off the list. Meanwhile Seeley and Keene fight to expand the list, convinced that harvesting seaweed is ecologically unwise, and that harvesters will cheat by cutting plants too close to the rocks, working in areas where they don’t belong, or by under-reporting their take.
“There’s so much power in these tides, it can kill you in an instant, but it can also help you survive if you respect it,” says Keene, standing on a patch of rockweed that’s been damaged (in this case, Seeley’s inspection concludes, by herbivorous snails). “I’ve been a lot of places, but nowhere do I love as much as I love this place, and to see it looking like that. It’s just not right.”
- By: Colin Woodard