Between a Rock and a Weed Place

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post from two students in COA’s Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities Class that I am co-teaching with Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate at COA) – Chris Petersen 

By: Maddie Kellett and Melisa Chan

 On April 2, 2016, the Frenchman Bay Partners (FBP) hosted the Rockweed Meeting at the Sullivan Recreational Center. The meeting was held to address an important question – who owns the rockweed? (Note: rockweed is a general term for several species of brown algae, but rockweed harvesting is directed at one species – Ascophyllum nodosum) Landowners wanted more control of rockweed harvesting in the intertidal which they believe is part of their property. For those of you who don’t know what rockweed is, don’t feel alone, because neither did we. Plus, we did not think rockweed harvesting could be related to our class that focuses on “fisheries” and “fishing”. But after spending a few hours in the meeting with our peers and a panel of experts, we realized that there is much more to rockweed than meets the eye.

Although the meeting was held because of conflicts over rockweed ownership, the goal of the FBP meeting was to exchange information. One of our main concerns was how the attendees would keep an open mind to hearing opposing opinions in order to best exchange important information and knowledge about the biology and harvest of rockweed. This is because we anticipated that there might be a flair of emotions from people highly invested in either the rockweed industry and rockweed conservation.

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It was great to see over 70 people show up to this meeting. This really showed us that rockweed is a big deal in the local communities and the state of Maine. There were representatives from a wide range of organizations, communities, industries and universities. Photo credit: Hannah Webber

The meeting had a group of 6 panelists who answered questions and gave information about rockweed from their associated perspectives and expertise. Four of these panelists also gave presentations during the first half of the meeting. Robin Hadlock Seeley, a biologist from the Shoals Marine Lab presented on the biology and ecology of rockweed. Jeff Romano, the Public Policy Manager from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust explained the history of legal disputes between rockweed harvesters and landowners. The perspective of a rockweed harvester was presented by Raul Ugarte, a marine biologist associated with Acadian Seaplants Limited. As an associate professor at the Maine Maritime Academy, Jessica Muhlin enlightened us on the reproductive biology of rockweeds. The other two panelists were George Seaver, the vice president of Ocean Organics Company, and Bob Morse, the founder of North American Kelp.

We observed four perspectives that most people generally lumped into over the course of the meeting, and were expressed clearly during the presentations. The first camp was the conservationists who felt that the rockweed harvesting industry was not ecologically sustainable and it changed the habitat significantly through morphology of the rockweed and the other species that took over an area once rockweed was harvested. Robin’s presentation greatly reflected this argument, stating in the conclusion of her presentation that rockweed harvesting was not ecologically sustainable. The second camp was the harvesters/industry who feel that their harvesting methods do not harmfully degrade the rockweed habitat. This was especially seen in Raul’s presentation, showing pre- and post-harvest pictures of rockweed areas along the coast of Nova Scotia.

The last two camps involve the legal side of rockweed ownership, with one believing that rockweed is alluvial and part of the land thereby owned by the landowners (explicitly expressed by Jeff and MCHT), and the second camp believing that it is non-alluvial and is part of the sea therefore not privately owned (opined by George). Personally, we both believe that rockweed is non-alluvial as they do not have roots but a holdfast that attaches to rocks. But we were still very interested in hearing about Jeff’s and others’ opinions.

One of the presentations we found interesting was Jessica’s because, as she mentioned, we never knew much, let alone even think of, how rockweeds reproduce. We enjoyed that she stuck to the facts and did not appear to settle in one of the camps. However, Robin’s and Raul’s presentation struck us the most because their respective data seemed to conflict with each other, especially their claims on the regrowth rates of rockweeds. We also found it surprising that most of the presenters expressed what we saw as blatant opinions on whether or not harvesting was detrimental to rockweed and its habitat. This is because, as science students, we are used to, and expect, presentations that merely display facts without obvious biases.

After the presentations, we were given a short break. This allowed the attendees to mingle, drink coffee, nibble on pastries, and stretch their legs. Being students, we sought out the more interactive and hands-on activities during the break. Jessica had brought examples of female and male specimens of rockweed to complement her presentation. Another attendee, Larch, also brought samples of rockweed that showed the difference in biomass between uncut and cut pieces. It was amazing to see the difference in where the biomass was located on each piece, with the uncut being much longer and the cut piece being wider. Thankfully it wasn’t all that smelly! Larch also put up some of his dried seaweed products and a self-authored cookbook for sale – it was interesting to learn of all the different and healthy ways one can use seaweed in cooking. 

Following the break, the panel session, facilitated by Natalie Springuel who is also our teacher, began to answer questions written and submitted by the attendees. Due to the high volume of people that showed up to this meeting, about 70 questions were submitted. The questions addressed the concerns of all camps of perspectives mentioned earlier. Overall, we found that the most vocal panelists were the company owners, and we assume that this is because they had to know just about everything related to rockweed since it is their livelihood.

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Panelists from the left: George, Raul, Jessica, Robin, Jeff, and Bob. Photo credit: Chris Petersen

It was also nice to know that we weren’t the only ones in the room to notice a conflict in the data presented by Robin and Raul, as addressed in a question asking why it appears that rockweed re-grows slower in Maine than in Nova Scotia. The panelists stated that though the data seems to indicate that, they claim that it is because the re-growth rates vary in all areas. This is due to the factors that influence the growth of rockweed, such as light or current, that varies from place to place.

In our opinion, one of the most important questions asked was the difference between mechanical and rake harvesting, as we knew nothing about either harvest method. Although Bob, George and Raul explained the differences, with the mechanical method using a pump and rotating blade to cut the tops of the rockweed, and the rake being a manual method, their explanation made us more confused, especially when it comes to whether the harvesting methods remove the holdfasts of the rockweeds or not. Due to this, we wished that more explanation, and perhaps a (visual) demonstration of both methods.

There were some topics that created heated exchanges between the panelists, particularly between Bob and Robin. This made some of us feel a tad uncomfortable. However, Natalie successfully navigated through the questions and allowed everyone to speak, while preventing arguments at the same time. She also constantly acknowledged the appreciation to the panelists for answering these questions, which helped to diffuse any potential conflicts.

The final question asked of the panel was what were the next steps for rockweed harvesting in Maine and if consensus could be reached between all the camps. Natalie allowed each panelist to answer, which we felt really brought an encompassing and positive end to the meeting. Jeff addressed the question of ownership, stating that a current court case will help definitively answer the alluvial/non-alluvial conflict. We are interested in the outcome of that court case, but are saddened that the final decision is still a year or two away. We felt that Raul made a very important and thoughtful comment that in order for anything to happen in the future regarding rockweed, all information needs to be put forward for decisions to be made. Bob on the other hand was a little more callous and unsupportive of potential future decision, stating that he would not be part of a consensus. His honesty took us aback, and really opened our eyes to how strongly set people are in their camps.

Even though a lot of information was presented at this meeting, we felt that the initial purpose of this meeting was not largely reflected in the questions and discussions. We felt that most of the questions and heated replies focused on the conservation, biology, and impact of harvesting activities rather than ownership. But overall, the experience was thought-provoking, and something we would like to experience again. As students living on MDI and taking a fishing community class, we want to soak up as much information as possible about the current fisheries-related events and issues in the local area. We also feel the need for a field trip coming for our class to visit Bob’s rockweed harvesting company in the very near future…

April 11 update: Frenchman Bay Partners has established a website with information from the meeting with additional information supplied by the participants, including some of their presentations: http://www.frenchmanbaypartners.org/projects/rockweed/

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One Response to Between a Rock and a Weed Place

  1. Pingback: Rockweed Meeting Follow Up | Frenchman Bay Partners

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