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3/13/2013 2:00:00 PM
Seaweed Industry Advocates For Statewide Regulation
By Shlomit Auciello


Representative Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro, said she sponsored LD 585 at the request of the Department of Marine Resources.

Passage of the bill would direct the commissioner of marine resources to develop a statewide seaweed management plan and repeal laws establishing the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area that was established in 2009.

The commissioner would be required to report back to the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources no later than Jan. 31, 2014.

Winchenbach serves on the Marine Resources Committee and represents Waldoboro, a town that is host to two seaweed processing facilities.

"I'm not an expert in this field," Winchenbach said.

According to Robin Hadlock Seeley, co-director of the Rockweed Coalition and teacher of marine sciences at Cornell University, LD 585 would repeal "the only management plan we have."

Hadlock Seeley is a part-time resident of Washington County and assistant director for academic affairs at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, a joint operation of Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.

Lifelong Cobscook Bay fisherman Julie Keene said the Department of Marine Resources is acting on the assumption that the seaweed industry will create more jobs for Maine. "This is destroying the jobs that we've got," she said.

On March 11, rockweed harvester Doug Wood took a contingent of legislators, harvesters processors and journalists into the Medomak River to observe one of his two mechanical harvest boats at work.

"I've been in this three years," Wood said. He said the rockweed industry, through voluntary participation with the Maine Seaweed Council, has been self-regulating.

Prior to leaving the dock, he showed two types of reports he fills out to provide a paper trail for the product and help future harvesters understand the histories of specific sectors along the tidal coast.

State regulations call for harvesters to leave at least 16 inches of rockweed attached to the bottom. Describing the vacuum system that draws rockweed fronds into the cutter, Wood said it was not possible for his mechanical harvesters to cut any shorter than that.

He said the equipment usually leaves two feet or more of the plant in place. Cutting blades are designed to break on contact with rocks, he said.

In addition, natural tidal changes limit the amount of time a harvester can work to between three and eight hours a day.

Wood said rockweed receives more permanent damage from severe winter ice and storms than from harvesting. He said harvesting thins out dominant plants that, like trees in a forest, can dominate the canopy and inhibit the growth of others.

Sea Grant Marine Extension Agent Sarah Redmond said ice and storms can break branches off the plants that form floating mats of seaweed. She said there is probably more rockweed in drifting mats than is harvested on the Maine coast.

"We're going through the rape of all the natural resources," Keene said at the Fishermen's Forum. "This generation is only interested in money."

"It's down to bare rock," she said. Keene said the state is so job-hungry that regulators ignore the long term repercussions of expanding access to resources.

"You can't go to the bottom of the food chain," Keene said.

Wood said it was in his interest and that of all rockweed harvesters to leave intact the lower part of the plant and its root-like hold-fast that attaches to the rock.

He pointed to recently harvested areas adjacent to non-harvested areas and challenged those present to differentiate between the two.

Robert Morse of North American Kelp and George Seaver of Ocean Organics were on board for the trip.

Their companies make fertilizers and agricultural food supplements from seaweed and are based in Waldoboro. Morse said he used to import seaweed for his process.

"This is a world-wide industry of sustainably harvesting seaweed," Seaver said. He said the U.S. is in its infancy as a seaweed producer. Countries such as Iceland, Norway and Great Britain have been successfully harvesting and maintaining the resource for many decades, he said.

Seaver said Maine allows access to approximately 1 percent of the harvestable rockweed, while other countries use up to 17 percent. He said between the two Waldoboro companies and the Brunswick facility of Connecticut-based Source Inc., Midcoast Maine hosts the bulk of seaweed processing in the U.S.

Morse said LD 585 and the management plan it seeks is the culmination of 19 years of work on the part of the Seaweed Council. Seaver said the legislation positions DMR to be "as adaptable regionally as they need to be."

At the Fishermen's Forum, Hadlock Seeley said at least 35 different fish species live in what she refers to as the rockweed forest. She said DMR does not see its role as protecting the seaweed.

"They see it as an advocacy issue when it's actually a stewardship issue," she said.

Seaver told those on the March 11 tour he has seen very little in the way of bycatch. He said in two years of feeding hand-harvested seaweed into a dryer he only saw two small lobsters, under four inches in length.

Once on the boat, Wood talked about the jobs in processing and other fields created out of the work his three-man crew does. He said other fisheries are finding themselves facing decreasing resources.

As the group on Wood's boat watched, a harvester boat gathered its mesh bag of rockweed from the shores of islands and shoals in the river.

Before and after the boat tour, Morse walked interested participants through his facility where 4-5 tons of wet seaweed are dried and packaged into one ton of dried product each year. North American Kelp also makes liquid fertilizers. Morse said seaweed is rich in trace minerals, amino acids and vitamins.

The Marine Resources Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on LD 585 starting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 20 in Room 206 of the Cross Building in Augusta.

The Rockweed Coalition maintains a website at www.rockweedcoalition.org.

To read the text of LD 585 and learn more about the bill, visit the website at www.mainelegislature.org/legis.

Related Links:
• Maine State Legislature
• The Rockweed Coalition



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