Sometimes a slippery nuisance to beach walkers, the brown seaweed thickly blankets the rocky shoreline of nearby Cobscook Bay, a remote 40-square-mile body of water near the Canadian border known for its powerful tides.
Frugal Mainers have long used rockweed to fertilize home gardens or help make and retain steam at clambakes. But in recent years, dried rockweed, rich in minerals and nutrients, has caught on more broadly as an ingredient in fertilizer, cosmetics and nutritional supplements. In Maine alone, nearly 11.7 million pounds of the weed, Ascophyllum nodosum, was harvested in 2008, more than twice the 4.8 million pounds taken in 2001.
That has made rockweed a hot commodity in the job-hungry Maine counties closest to the Canadian border. There, paper mills and logging operations have been in decline and decades of overfishing have depleted stocks of everything from cod to sea urchins. Washington County, which encompasses Cobscook Bay, is the state's poorest, with 20.1% of residents living below the federal poverty level, compared with a 12.6% average for the state.
The result has been a war of wills between those who think rockweed could give a small but needed boost to the local economy and those who fear that commercially harvesting the stuff could damage the habitat for other harvestable creatures living on or under the weed. Young lobsters, flounder, cod and clams all depend on rockweed for cover from predators.
. . . Harvesting opponents are a loosely organized group that includes university scientists, the Washington County commissioners, the local fishermen's association and Maine's Passamaquoddy Indian tribe, whose reservation abuts Cobscook Bay. While lacking data that would definitively prove rockweed harvesting's negative impact on fish and other sea creatures, many believe it is inevitable. Researchers at the University of Maine have found that when harvesters leave 15 inches or more of the plant intact, it often fully regenerates within a year, but regrowth is much slower when it involves shorter cuts and older plants.