Local Regulation of the Rockweed Resource

Important! The Morphological Changes in Rockweed

Rockweed grows by lengthening and branching of stems at the upper end of the plant, but it only grows 3-4″ per year. In the early stages of growth, up to about three feet tall (this takes nine to twelve years), rockweed looks bushy. After that, rockweed takes on the form of a deciduous tree with an over-arching canopy, and it provides shelter and food for over 150 species. In Gouldsboro Bay, this over-arching canopy can grow to include a lot of plants that are six feet tall and 18-24 years old. A six foot tall plant has very few stems at the bottom, and most of its biomass is at the top. The State of Maine, thoughtlessly adopting the Canadian approach of corporate exploitation of a resource, says that it’s legal to cut this six foot plant at 16″, but if I do that, very few stems will remain for the purpose of regeneration, and I will have removed 85-90% of the biomass of the plant. I will also have a higher rate of stormcast plants during winter storms because I have thinned the density of the beds too much. I’m not a fan of turning a canopied forest into a raspberry patch. Cutting at 16″ is destruction of canopy habitat. No use fishing for pollack there! I get a much speedier rate of regeneration if I cut the plant in the neighborhood of 36″ where there are many more stems for regeneration, and after I make the cut, the plant still continues to function as canopy. It doesn’t revert to its earlier “little bushy plant” phase.

The Method of Harvesting for True Sustainability

My method is simple: Walking in a bed, I select a plant. If it stretches out to chest high, I cut it at knee height as it slopes toward the knife. If it’s too short, I let it go. Simple as that. Harvesting while afloat (less trampling, much better), I use a paddle marked at three feet to ensure that I am in at least three feet of depth to bottom. If a plant is splayed out on the surface, that qualifies it as four feet or longer, and I cut it just below surface as it slopes toward the knife. This method preserves at least three feet of habitat, and I sleep well at night. Over the years, I’ve discovered that the sustainable rate of harvest, using this method, is one wet ton per 150 feet of shoreline, on average. That means that gardeners could sustainably harvest 35+ wet tons per mile of shoreline without damaging the protective canopy system. Since Steuben has about 20 miles of rockweed shoreline, that would result in a sustainable resource of 700+ tons per year. If a local warden administered the harvest in the spirit of “from each according to his talents, to each according to his needs”, the scenario would be something like this:

Local Regulation of Rockweed — Here’s How to DO it!

Any resident (we have at least 1000 residents in Steuben) would be entitled to apply for a permit to harvest one wet ton per person fed by a garden. Names of the people fed by a garden would be on the application. This means that a family of five would be allowed to harvest five wet tons. The resident would pay an upfront fee to the warden for administering the system of $10 per wet ton requested. (If the total harvest is 750 tons, the warden would be salaried $7,500 for three months of work.) The warden would confer with the applicant about location and home port (for the sake of the harvester’s safety), or if a commercial harvester decided to offer his services to a gardener, that would be an option as well. The main point is that the warden would assign 150 feet of shoreline per wet ton to be harvested by posting the shoreline, point to point, with permit forms that state the name of the harvester, the amount to be harvested, and the date(s) allowed for the harvest. The cutting height would be specified at 36″ and the wet tonnage would be measured as 50 bushels or equivalent volume in a crate. The main point is to arrive at a method of volume measurement that anyone in the public can observe and verify. This preserves transparency. The dates are specified so that the warden has a cut-off date, after which time he can inspect the zone by paddling through it while it’s covered with three feet of water, to make certain that the canopy is still intact. This preserves enforceability. The entire harvest season could be July 1st to September 15th, and the deadline for gardeners’ applications would be June 15th. The harvester must understand that he will be working with the same zone, more or less, from year to year. That provides accountability in the system. The warden may take before & after photos, and he will be required to file an annual report that includes maps of areas harvested correlated with identification of individual harvesters, and tallies of tonnages taken from each plot. The warden would be given the authority to set up rotational harvests. His role is to balance the needs of the community against the preservation of canopy at 36″ so that the bays will remain abundant with life. If there is any shore frontage left to harvest after gardeners’ needs have been satisfied, commercial harvesters WHO ARE RESIDENTS OF STEUBEN may apply for that shore frontage, and they will pay the same fee of $10 per wet ton to the warden who will administer their permits. The application date for commercial harvesters would be July 1st, to give the warden time to sort out the gardeners’ permits first. The commercial harvest season would be July 15th through September 15th, with no cut-off deadlines for commercial harvesters. It is understood that gardeners’ applications, timely filed, will always be filled before commercial requests, provided that the gardeners abide by the cutting heights. Commercial harvesters who do not abide by the cutting heights will forfeit the right to harvest for three years. Machine harvesting and rake harvesting are banned because harvesters who use these methods are not able or willing to measure bottom and adjust their cutting height accordingly.

The priorities of this system are 1) preservation of 36″ canopy, 2) the needs of gardeners, and 3) the needs of local resident commercial harvesters.

I’d suggest that if local commercial harvesters begin to supply local market gardeners, all will be well. This keeps the true value of rockweed within the bounds of local community.

Clear Labels for Products

Before I leave the subject of rockweed altogether, I will comment that in traditional cultures, rockweed has always been used as fertilizer and for grazing sheep on islands during the winter. However, there is no clear tradition of using rockweed as human food. It has a bitter taste that makes it unpalatable. No rockweed CEO has ever brought a tasty dish made from rockweed to Show & Tell at the Maine Seaweed Council or The Fisherman’s Forum. There are rockweed companies that call themselves purveyors of kelp, even though they are only dealing in rockweed. In the past decade, some supplements companies and herbal suppliers have started to market rockweed as kelp. The front label on the bottle of capsules says “Kelp” and the ingredients label says “ascophyllum nodosum”. They are misinformed, and this is mislabeling. I’ve had customers with cancer who were using real kelp to control tumors, and when they mistakenly switched to using rockweed which they thought was kelp, they got sicker and their tumors started growing once again. Why is this happening? A rockweed company can get a larger market share if it uses the word “kelp” as part of its title on the internet. Shop around, and you’ll discover companies that sell “sea vegetables” now suggesting rockweed as a proper supplement for humans.

Last Licks

Some of the aristocratic upland owners on Gouldsboro Bay may get a little nervous when I suggest that it’s time to create a Charter of the Intertidal Commons, and there may be a transition period during which their land functions as scientific “control”…..reminding us what rockweed habitat looks like when it’s left untouched. For the time being, let’s appreciate these “controlling personalities,” allow them to clutch until their knuckles turn white, and work around them, continuing to breathe life into our gardens. We already have an informal “No Harvest” coalition in Cobscook Bay, and that’s a hefty bit of Control. Now it’s time to set the cutting height at 36″ for the entire coastline. Since they claim to be taking only 1% of the total biomass on the coast of Maine, the CEO’s of rockweed companies in Maine should have little difficulty with this.

I can imagine a day when the aristocratic upland owners will be finally convinced through observing the careful practices of local harvesters regulated by a local warden that there is a middle path whereby rockweed can be harvested and still function as overarching canopy habitat at least three feet tall.

Long ago I realized that the courts that are based upon adversarial styles of communication will never settle the matter of ownership because they can’t make any money from a stabilized cooperative situation. The aristocrats are parasites. We lessen their negative effects by becoming self-sufficient and self-regulating communities.

When it comes to rockweed, we have to tell the truth, and that truth begins with “rockweed grows on average 3-4″ per year.” But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself: measure the distance between vesicles in the plants you are working with, and always leave a part of your world undisturbed so that you can compare it to the places you are harvesting.

If rockweed is a fishery, then who gets to fish? If rockweed is an agricultural fertilizer resource, then the question is, “How can resident gardeners, real persons, use this resource to benefit our local gardens and end hunger and malnutrition that result from soils that have lost vital trace minerals?” Machine harvesting is banned in Canada. Rake harvesting is banned in Ireland. I’m presently watching a situation in Ireland where a CEO who once admitted to Irish legislators that “I know how to harvest rockweed…..I know that you can cut it as low as 4 inches and get away with it” is now applying to “license the resource” of Clew Bay. (Establish a monopoly, in other words.) In his company’s harvest plan he’s magnanimously offering to cut it at 12″ whereas the common practice is 8″! And he’s offering to only take 20% of the biomass each year! What a guy! What that really means is that harvesters will cut as they please, the habitat will never grow more than two feet high, if that.

A CEO speaking to the Irish legislators has also admitted that Chinese buyers have an interest in rockweed for fracking purposes since the sources for alginates off the coast of Chile have been over-harvested. In the U.S., Congress has suspended the Clean Water Act of 1974 when it comes to disposal of fracking fluids that are laden with toxic petrochemicals and radionuclides like radium from deep in the earth. These fluids total millions of gallons, and they are often spilled or dumped into local sewage plants which are incapable of treating them. It all ends up in surface ground water, one way or another. Over two million wells have been fracked.

If ever there was a time when the natives of Ireland need to take back local regulation of the commons, this is it. I don’t think it will happen, however, because the Irish seaweed harvesters have not developed an appreciation for tall canopy habitat. It would take twenty years to re-establish that. In my own bay, in just three years of harvesting, Acadia Sea Plants from Canada has managed to destroy overarching rockweed habitat because the Maine legislators have set a statutory cutting height of 16″ and the Department of Marine Resources has permitted rake harvesters to use a rake with a 5″ guard. When I circulated a photo of a rockweed harvester who had removed the long handle from his rake and attached a rope instead, (he had no depth control whatsoever), nothing happened. Why? It’s impossible for a state warden to prove in court that plants have been cut too short by a particular person in a system where the entire bay is open to roving harvesters overlapping each other’s efforts. As I said before, we live in post-legal America. We have to re-establish the values of the Magna Carta (the people are the sovereign, not the king) and the Charter of the Forest (government cannot privatize the intertidal commons, nor can government allow the intertidal commons to be destroyed). I have described a sane method of local regulation. Now it’s up to the gardeners to take action, making sure that no children go hungry.