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Homeowners and Scientists Clash With Companies Over Harvesting Of Seaweed in Washington County

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Robin Hadlock Seeley, of Lubec, with some of the rockweed that covers Cobscook Bay in Washington County

The blue boats owned by Acadian Seaplants, boats that carry fresh-cut rockweed out of Washington County's Cobscook Bay, are not as numerous as they were three years ago. 

Still, tensions are high among property owners who object to the company's harvest of seaweed near their homes. These homeowners are hoping that a pending court case will settle the question of who controls the intertidal zone.

The dried rockweed that has washed ashore in Lubec crunches and pops beneath scientist Robin Hadlock Seeley's feet as she inspects mounds of vegetation, which scientists refer to as Ascophyllum nodosum. A senior research associate at Cornell University and a faculty member of UNH’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, Hadlock Seeley lives nearby in Pembroke. She negotiates the slippery rockweed-clad boulders with grace that comes with experience.

Hadlock Seeley would like to see Cobscook Bay's rockweed flourish. Her own research has demonstrated that rockweed provides a refuge for fledgling sea animals and a food source for sea birds.

But commercial harvesters such as Acadian Seaplants, a Nova Scotian biotech company, have been harvesting around Cobscook Bay for years. Last year, the company was on the losing end of a Washington County Superior Court decision which affirmed that property owners can deny cutters the right to harvest, a decision that Acadian Seaplants hasappealed to the Maine Supreme Court. Current rockweed harvesting regulations rely on a science that treats the plant like grass, rather than as a habitat.

"The harvesters are allowed to take 17 percent of the biomass, but there's no protection for keeping the original habitat architecture of the rockweed forest, so the biomass figure is just treating this like grass or like corn – like how much vegetation can you haul off and how much is left," Hadlock Seeley said.

Homeowners can signal their desire to have their rockweed left alone in a Cobscook Bay registry. But the registry has no enforcement mechanism while the court appeal is pending, so cutting operations in the bay continue.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP Photo
AP Photo
Rockweed, which grows in the ocean's intertidal zone, provides food, shelter and a spawning habitat for a wide variety of animals and organisms including lobsters, mussels, snails, periwinkles and fish

Marilyn Ness has owned a home on Cobscook Bay for many years and says cutters will sometimes argue with her over their right to cut rockweed. More often, however, Ness says the cutters seem to prefer to scout out the residences where no one is home. She says she objects to having her privacy interrupted by cutters outside her window and surrendering the property where she pays taxes.

"It's disruptive to me because someone is on my property, making money off of me that I've already paid," Ness said. "If they said to me, ‘we'll split our deal with you. If you let us come, we'll split our profit,’ but they haven't."

At the Department of Marine Resources, the patrol division continues to intervene on behalf of property owners who want rockweed harvesting to stop. In those cases the cutters have complied, but Ness and others say there are always cutters who will just wait until another day to make a return trip.

DMR spokesperson Jeff Nichols says that policy will continue until there's a ruling from the Maine Supreme Court.

Merritt Carey, a Maine-based spokesperson for Acadian Seaplants, says the company continues to advise its cutters against engaging in confrontations with landowners.

"We make every effort to ensure that our harvesters are always where they should be, and we watch them quite carefully, and we're out there every day with them, Carey said. "We have a manager who is dedicated just to the Cobscook Bay area."

In the meantime, if the Nova Scotian company fails to keep an eye on its subcontractors, the residents of Cobscook Bay will be watching.

Updated Monday 20:58 p.m.