Rockweed: Failing Down the Food Chain

I live on the Gulf of Maine in the northeastern corner of the United States. This coast is characterized by hard granite edges and islands that have supported communities first based on fishing and farming, later evolved with the arrival of summer visitors and tourists, and now with retired or urban flight year-round residents. The heart and soul of Maine is its relationship with the ocean and surely that is the reason that I too came aground here.

Artists have rendered our shoreline for centuries--the gray, grained walls against which the sea breaks constantly, the edge with its occasional gravel beaches, pools filled with marine life, and dark forms of seaweed, mostly rockweed, seen moving below the high water, then revealed as the tide recedes to a clinging mass of varied greens and yellow strands of glistening plant life teeming with small marine species, seen and unseen. This weed constitutes shelter for such species, an incubation place for plankton, sea urchins, periwinkles, and other shellfish, young adult lobsters, and other coastal animals, above and below the waterline, that forage there for nutrition.

That nutritional value extends, of course, to us, and there is a small but long-lived harvest of seaweed in Maine, mostly by a small group of seasonal workers who live alongshore. The market has been for lobster packing and locally produced health products. But that is changing, and today even the lowly rockweed has its corporate, big money attraction. Over the past few years, demand for seaweed has grown for fertilizer, health products, and additives to processed foods. And typically as a small place, independent-minded, and without many regulatory resources, Maine has become vulnerable to larger interests, the increased need and cost of processing, and foreign corporations coming into the area because they have exhausted their own supply or have been regulated against by their own governments. What we have here is another classic example of unrestricted harvest, with no interest in sustainability of the resources or the local community. Fish, oil, gas, minerals, water -- we see the same phenomenon worldwide.

Consider the history of fishing in Maine. In the 19th century, cod-fishing was at the center of our economy. In the 20th century, due to unrestrained over fishing, the supply and the monetary return collapsed. Whole communities were abandoned. What has followed? Exactly the same thing with ground fish, taken until less than a handful of boats are operating today from Maine ports. This year, Maine has been forced to shorten the scallop season, close the shrimp season completely, and delay the opening for lucrative elvers until quotas and regulations can be finalized. The Maine lobster industry, a huge contributor to the state economy and to its cultural identity, is regulated, sometimes to the dismay of the lobstermen, but recently the presence of mercury purportedly from an upriver chemical manufacturing enterprise forced the closing of an area at the mouth of the Penobscot River because of contamination in the lobster meat. This is an example of a sudden possible shift in the ecology: temperature change, an algae bloom, or another toxic release resulting from ecological damage already done, that might threaten the lobster fishery elsewhere with dreadful, devastating financial and community consequences.

Processing is another problem. For years, Maine shipped most of its lobster harvest to Canada where it was processed, packaged, and distributed, not as a product of Maine. The increase in rockweed harvest has produced a similar situation. The State has one private, inadequate processing entity; the rest is exported north to be transformed into a Canadian product, circumventing the local harvest limits, and allocating the real profit from this endeavor to others. Even the harvesters are affected, with some locals still at work, while some of the companies look to employ temporary migrant workers to harvest the weed at less than competitive wages. In the Maine legislature, measures to control rockweed harvest areas, regulate for short-term plant regeneration, protect the associated habitat and fisheries, establish certain no-cut zones, and create a management plan are stalled in the usual debate between environmentalists and vested economic or political interests. In the meantime, without guidelines and controls, the rocky coast is being stripped bare, southward one cove at a time.

What are we doing? Rockweed is just another example of "failing down the food chain." Again and again, we affirm short-term profit over long-term sustainability, governance fails us, and we lose an irreplaceable asset. Why? Will we ever learn? Will we ever understand how we damage ourselves with this consistent ill-logic and narrow thinking? This is not just an embarrassment and loss for Maine, it is emblematic of comparable losses we are facing all around this world, and we should know better.