Maine’s Shoreline a Slippery Slope?

by BridgetA-O on Novembre 27, 2016 - 12:26am


The word “rockweed” sounds more like an ironic band name than a potential spark for international tension, but as Mary Pols of the Portland Herald notes, the slimy seaweed is now presenting a thorny legal challenge. Her article “The value of rockweed is rising – as are tensions over its ownership” published October 30 2016, describes a conflict between those who own the seaweed beds where it grows, (mainly Mainers), and those who want to harvest them (mostly Canadians). And while Maine’s oceans resource laws may seem a bit dry, who gets to choose the harvest may have real implications for the local ecosystem, as well as our understanding of resources more generally.

Quoting Pols, rockweed is best known to swimmers as “the creepy stuff where the boogie man hides”. For those who have yet to experience interacting with it first hand, it is a dense seaweed that grows in the area between high and low tide of Maine’s coastline (helpfully referred to as the intertidal zone). The last decade saw the harvest double, likely as a result of a variety of ingenious new industries which now can process it into everything from dietary supplements to fertilizer.  However, just because it’s now good for more than scaring swimmers doesn’t mean all is well on the sea shore. A funny legal quirk of Maine’s means that the intertidal zone is owned by whoever owns the land above it, but as of Maine’s modern 1820s guideline, people still have the right to “fish, fowl, and navigate” there without the owner’s consent. So, now, Canadian corporations are trying very hard to argue that seaweed is a fish.

The line is less ridiculous than it seems – in 1900, Maine’s court ruled exactly that, calling the world’s most appealing resource “sea manure” that anyone could harvest. Of course, they also gave the opposite verdict two other times before then, hence the current uncertainty. And since consumption is continuing, several long-time local families, who presumably hope that the fourth time’s the charm, are suing the Canadian harvester Acadia Seaplants to get them to stop.

In all this debate over ownership, the topic of the rockweed harvest’s environmental impact is getting rather lost. The harvesters claim that their consumption is fine, that it’s 1.5% of the total biomass, and therefore much less than what is lost to winter ice. I suspect that as the industry grows a more detailed argument will be raised, but the premise will likely be the same – harvesters will ask that regulators choose an amount to be cut each year which will grow back between cuts.

This idea of a “maximum sustainable yield” makes a lot of sense on the surface – why not let people have as much “sea manure” as they want (for whatever reason) and will grow back? The funny thing is that there’s a clear Canadian counter example when a maximum sustainable yield went horribly wrong – the cod fishery, which collapsed despite a maximum sustainable yield putting 30,000 people out of work in one day. And it isn’t an isolated incident – all around the world, these systems don’t work for loads of reasons: math is hard, or figuring out how much of something there is in an ocean is hard, or harvesting methods change, or the ecosystem does something unexpected because our boogieman-house is actually critical to some other creature. I don’t know what will happen in this court case, but I have to hope the Canadians take the lessons of their native land and treat rockweed not just as a resource, but as a part of Maine’s coast.

Bavington Dean. “Marine and Freshwater Fisheries in Canada: Uncertainties, Conflicts, and Hope on the Water.” In Resource and Environmental Management in Canada (fifth edition), edited by Bruce Mitchell, 221-240. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Pols, Mary. "The value of rockweed is rising – as are tensions over its ownership." The Portland Press Herald, October 30, 2016.