Rockweed Working Group to Meet at UMM

By Lura Jackson

On Monday, November 17th, a rockweed working group will be meeting at the University of Maine at Machias to discuss the recommendations that the group will be making to the Department of Marine Resources in early 2015. These recommendations will influence how much of the coast of Maine is maintained as “no cut” areas prohibiting the harvesting of rockweed.

Rockweed is considered to be one of Maine's most valuable marine resources, worth up to $20 million per year. At the same time, it is recognized as providing important nursery habitat for many species including lobsters as well as serving as food for many organisms such as periwinkles and sea urchins. 

In Maine, rockweed has traditionally been used for agricultural purposes, though that began to change in the 1990s as commercial harvesters recognized the demand for rockweed in Asian markets. In 1999, the commercial harvest of rockweed was one million pounds. In three years’ time, the harvest increased to five million pounds, and in recent years, it has grown to fifteen million pounds annually. While most of the rockweed is sold dry, harvesters of fresh rockweed receive three cents a pound, requiring the removal of substantial amounts of the seaweed to make a profit.

The effect of the rockweed harvest is not yet well understood. Scientists and concerned citizens such as the Rockweed Coalition have raised their voices to limit the harvest until its impact can be accurately assessed. “A sensible management plan is needed,” committee advisor Ken Ross states. “Nothing should be done until it can be proven that the harvest isn't harmful.” 

In addition to serving directly as habitat and food for numerous species, recent studies have found that rockweed plays a critical role in the productivity and energy flow of Cobscook Bay. As part of the natural process, rockweed breaks down into detrital particles over time, producing about four million grams of carbon each year. That carbon is considered to have a potentially significant role in the productivity of soft shelled clams and scallops, meaning that a reduced rockweed biomass would lend to lower populations of those species. 

At present, there are no statewide regulations on the amount of rockweed that can be cut or removed using mechanical harvesting, though harvesters must be licensed by the state. In Cobscook Bay, activists have succeeded in protecting the parks and conservation areas by establishing a “no cut” zone in those areas. The meeting on November 17th will discuss whether or not that law should be kept as well as if it should be extended to the rest of the state. The public is invited to attend to express its opinion to the working group. The meeting will be held in Science Room 102 at 116 O'Brien Avenue (UMM), from 3 to 7 pm.