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Another Setback for Maine's Booming Seaweed Industry

Maine boasts 5,400 miles of mainland and island coastline, 88% of which is privately owned. (Flickr/Sunset Sailor)
Maine boasts 5,400 miles of mainland and island coastline, 88% of which is privately owned. (Flickr/Sunset Sailor)
June 19, 2019

ORONO, Maine – State lawmakers in Maine have struck down a bill that would have protected the rights of workers to harvest rockweed in intertidal zones.

In most states, intertidal land is public, but in Maine, it belongs to the person who owns the land up to the shore, and many of those landowners are fighting to keep harvesters away.

Seaweed is a booming business in Maine, and rockweed makes up 95% of the harvest. The bill would have offset the effects of a recent court ruling that also sided with the landowners.

Amanda Klemmer, assistant professor of landscape food-web ecology at the University of Maine, is the lead investigator on a study that examines the rockweed industry's effect on the food web. She said some of the public discourse has been a little off base.

"I think as scientists," said Klemmer, "we really did find the court ruling was maybe not premature, but not founded in scientific fact."

Rockweed is a type of algae or seaweed that has many uses as an additive in foods and fertilizer. The court justified its ruling by saying that rockweed is a plant and should be treated like any plant on a landowner's property. But rockweed isn't a plant, said Klemmer, who pointed out that humans are as closely related to rockweed as plants are.

For now, harvesters will need to ask permission from landowners.

Some experts believe the Gulf of Maine is the fastest-warming body of water in the world, and many fishermen – worried about how climate change will affect their livelihood – see rockweed as a sustainable alternative. Klemmer said the research is just beginning, to understand the effects of the rockweed harvest on the food web. While it's too soon for definitive answers, she said it's also too soon to discourage harvesting.

"You know, these harvesters, some of those companies have been working and harvesting within these systems since the 1970s," she said, "and if they weren't doing it in a sustainable way, then their industry wouldn't be able to continue as long as it has."

The issue remains controversial, with landowners saying they want to protect the rockweed as part of the gulf ecosystem, and harvesters saying they aren't harming the environment. Maine has one of the longest coastlines of any state, but the majority is privately owned and occupied seasonally.

The text of the legislation is online at legislature.maine.gov.

Jenn Stanley, Public News Service - ME