Maine’s Shoreline a Slippery Slope?

by BridgetA-O on November 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.



Hey Bridget,

I really liked how you grabbed the readers attention with your first sentence. Surely, rockweed isn't a topic of daily discussion. I had no idea that there was such a dispute between seaweed bed owners and harvesters. This poses an interesting thought, that is: how does this effect the Canadian economy? Being Canadian, I am wondering if this argument is worth the fight, will gaining the seaweed benefit communities? The problem I see with this is that oceans generally have vague laws regarding such things like owning and harvesting seaweed. This is because it is difficult to manage these so called "non-territorial" areas. Countries have to come together and agree on an set regulation or law that will ensure the safety of local ecosystems. Perhaps Maine is an advocate to set international standards.

I appreciate you explaining what exactly this seaweed is and where it thrives. Why does it thrive at this specific location? Why is it degrading to local ecosystems to take the seaweed away? Is there a harvest rate that would be considered safe so that existing ecosystems can continue to exist while human gain some benefits? These are some of the thoughts that popped into my mind when you were discussing the logistics of the seaweed. Clearly there is many uses for this resource, so why is it not that companies decided to place great interest in the industry? As you stated, this creates many problems because of the legal complications of who is the rightful owner. In many ways I can see why seaweed would be treated the same as fish.

I liked how you brought some past events regarding seaweed into your post to give the public a better understanding of the uncertainties of the resource and its use. People tend not to act when great uncertainties exist because, well there just isn't a clear cut answer for what is "right". How can the state act when they are unsure of the full understanding of the resource? However, this still doesn't mean that actions shouldn't be taken.

I see that you included some suggested harvest rates, which answers my question above. If these uncertainties still exist then there should be greater efforts put into research to gain a better picture of the whole growth, harvest, and use of the resource. Instead of choosing an amount of seaweed to be cut each year, I think a better solution would be to set an international standard for 5 to 10 years. If harvesters exceed this limit, then fines will be issued. Once there is an established policy, researches can look back at the harvest rates and decide if current amounts can be continued to use in support of the industry.

As you mentioned, the idea of maximum sustainable yield is the solution that I just previous outlined. If proper studies are completed, I would sure hope that the seaweed would grow back, this maintaining the local ecosystem. This will only be successful if this policy is enforced, as I said, and is continued to be followed by all companies. A gradual introduction of this yield could ensure success. I understand your concerns, you make very good arguments as to why this method will not work, but what other solution is there? What would you do in this situation?

Thanks for you post!