Maine’s seaweed business is growing like a weed. The hyped plant is both a “superfood” and an economic boost for the rural state. But a recent court ruling could alter Maine’s slimy business and create a tangle of new restrictions.
Clams, marine worms, lobsters—Maine has a long tradition of harvesting from the sea. In recent years, demand for marine algae has increased. Seaweed is showing up in medicines, makeup, fertilizer, cow feed, and many health foods and nutritional supplements. As natural products flourish, seaweed’s popularity rises.
In the 2000s, the annual seaweed harvest was often less than 10 million pounds. Last year, harvesters collected more than 22 million goopy pounds. That impacts Maine’s economy by about $20 million a year, says Trey Angera, a member of the Maine Seaweed Council.
Rockweed, a greenish-brown species growing along much of Maine’s shoreline, makes up most of the state’s seaweed harvest.
That could soon change. This spring, Maine’s highest court ruled that rockweed growing along the shore of private property belongs to the landowner. As such, harvesters can’t just float up and take it without permission.
Enforcing the court’s decision could be difficult. Rockweed is harvested in Maine’s intertidal zone, land that is above water at low tide and underwater at high tide. In these mudflats, property boundaries can be hard to identify.
George Seaver is vice president of Ocean Organics, a firm that’s processed rockweed for 40 years. “You can’t put a [surveyor’s] pin in the mud,” he says, “and you certainly can’t put a pin in the water.”
It’s unclear how the ruling will shape future seaweed harvests, other than that harvesters will now need to obtain permission from landowners.
Permission may be hard to get. Many landowners worry about conserving the Maine coast. With demand for seaweed growing, they question how long harvesters can keep scalping it.
They also point out that some forms of marine life depend on the algae for food or shelter. “Rockweed is a vital cornerstone of the Gulf of Maine food web, and other species depend on it,” landowner attorney Gordon Smith says.
Eight years ago, James Young began harvesting seaweed. “The working waterfront all along the coast of Maine is shrinking,” he says, citing limited access. Seaweed harvesters will need to look elsewhere.
But their worries go beyond their jobs. Young says, “If Maine loses its access to the shore and access to its fisheries, it will lose part of its character.”