Rockweed: Habitat, ‘manure’ or cow’s Viagra?

[USA] Watch any four-year-old who unwittingly encounters seaweed at the beach, either on shore rotting on the sand or riding the tide in shallow water. The universal pre-school response: “Yuk!! Gross!! Get it off me!!!” (Cue tears).

Ask just about any marine scientist who studies the wide array of seaweed species that call the world’s oceans their homes. A sea botanist’s response likely will heap superlatives on the ability of Ascophyllum nodosum, more commonly known in Maine as “rockweed,” to provide sustenance and habitat for at least 35 species of young fish and 74 species of juvenile crustaceans, including lobsters. She will also tell you that the shallow tidal waters above “underwater forests” of rockweed provide an important food source for at least 35 species of nesting shore birds and migrating water fowl.

Or you can ask the folks who harvest rockweed and other types of seaweed for use as an ingredient in value-added products ranging from food to fertilizer. Worldwide, the seaweed “fishery” collects an estimated 250 metric tons of the stuff each year. In Atlantic Canada, seaweed harvesting, which extends into the Downeast Maine shoreline, generates $50 million in revenue and creates approximately 1,000 jobs, seasonal and year-round. In Maine, the Department of Marine Resources estimates that 15 million pounds of seaweed were cut and hauled ashore last year, a harvest worth an estimated $530,000. That’s down from the 19.4 million pounds harvested in 2014, which had an estimated value of $771,765.

Among the few seaweed harvesters in Maine is North American Kelp, which is based in Waldoboro. The company’s owner, Robert Morse, has been in the seaweed harvesting business since 1971, cutting rockweed and other species between Eastport and Casco Bay, which represents a long stretch of Maine’s craggy 3,000-mile shoreline. His company dries the seaweed it harvests and sells dried kelp meal in 50-pound bags, marketing it as an organic component of soil-conditioning fertilizers and as a feed supplement for dairy herds. Morse says thousands of milk cows are now being fed three ounces of his company’s dried kelp a day. “It’s a natural Viagra for cows,” he said recently at a rockweed harvesting informational meeting held in Sullivan.

Although no pre-schoolers were among the speakers who weighed in on seaweed during the April 2 informational session, three rockweed conservationists and three rockweed harvesters, including Morse, presented their perspectives on the contentious issue of whether seaweed harvesting is good for the intertidal ecosystems that sustain the long list of marine and avian species. The event, organized by Frenchman Bay Partners, attracted an audience of more than 70 people eager to learn more about the ecological, economic and legal issues involved in seaweed harvesting.

Curiously, it’s never been clearly determined if intertidal seaweed harvesting is legal. While established Maine case law allows clam and bloodworm diggers access to low-tide mud flats that front private shoreline properties, that legal protection has yet to be extended to those who harvest seaweed. When the Maine Department of Marine Resources issues licenses to seaweed harvesters, it does so with this disclaimer: “The holder of this license and any property owners must be aware that Maine’s common law (meaning state law developed through court decisions) is not clear as to whether seaweed located in the intertidal zone (defined as the shores, flats or other land between the high and low water mark) is owned by the public generally or by the upland property owner. Therefore, since ownership of the seaweed in the intertidal zone is an unsettled question that only Maine courts can definitively answer, the State of Maine takes no position on (1) whether the public may harvest seaweed from those areas without interfering with the private property rights of the upland owner or (2) whether the upland property owners may prohibit the public harvest of seaweed in those areas.”

The issue of legality remains unresolved, but it now is the epicenter of a lawsuit filed last December in Washington County by two shoreline property owners there who oppose harvesting without permission or compensation. The case law involved extends as far back as colonial ordinances written in 1641. Since 1843, the Maine Supreme Court’s rulings have been inconsistent in ruling if harvesting “sea manure” can legally be included under the legal protections of “fishing.”

At this point, the legal issues surrounding the ongoing seaweed harvest remain as clear as the mud flats that nurture seaweed. Nonetheless, licenses are still being issued and license fees are still being paid to DMR. As those at the Sullivan symposium were told: Stay tuned.

Tom Walsh is a science writer who works from his seaside home in Gouldsboro. He’s also the owner of an intertidal zone replete with rockweed Habitat.

 

View original article at: Rockweed: Habitat, ‘manure’ or bovine Viagra?

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