PORTLAND, Maine -- Maine's seaweed business has grown like a weed in recent years, with proponents touting it as both a "superfood" and an economic generator for the rural state — but the industry is now facing sticky new restrictions.
Maine has a long tradition of seaweed harvesting, in which the algae is gathered for a wide variety of commercial uses, including some popular food products. Now, a recent court ruling could dramatically change the nature of the business in Maine, which has seen the harvest of the gooey stuff grow by leaps and bounds in the last decade, industry members said.
The state's highest court ruled last month that permission from coastal landowners is needed for harvesting rockweed, a type of seaweed that's critical to the industry. The Maine Seaweed Council, an industry advocacy group, has called the ruling "a disappointing setback" that will force harvesters to adjust.
The court's decision could mandate the implementation of rules that are difficult to enforce, said George Seaver, a vice president of Waldoboro firm Ocean Organics who has been involved in processing rockweed for 40 years. Rockweed is harvested from tidal mudflats where property boundaries can be ill-defined, he said.
"You can't put a pin in the mud, and you certainly can't put a pin in the water," Seaver said. "One of the fundamental things about the court case is who owns the intertidal zone."
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court's ruling was an outgrowth of a lawsuit involving Acadian Seaplants, a Canadian company that has harvesting operations in rural Maine. The court ruled that rockweed grown in the intertidal zone is the private property of upland land owners. That means it "cannot be harvested by members of the public as a matter of right," the justices ruled.
Gordon Smith, a Portland attorney representing the group of landowners, said one of their motivators was conservation. Rockweed has been harvested at an accelerated rate in recent years, causing some in coastal Maine to question its sustainability.
The harvest of seaweed in Maine reached its highest point in recent recorded history in 2018, at more than 22 million pounds (10 million kilograms), according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The harvest in the 2000s was frequently less than 10 million pounds (4.5 million kilograms), before interest began to shoot up in the early part of this decade.
Rockweed typically makes up most of the state's seaweed harvest, which was valued at a little less than $1 million at the docks last year. But the total economic impact seaweed has on the state is around $20 million per year, said Trey Angera, a member of the Maine Seaweed Council.
And these days, edible seaweeds — which also include dulse, sugar kelp, Irish moss and others — have cachet in Maine and beyond. Saturday was the final day of Maine's first "Seaweed Week," which put a focus on restaurants that use the product. Part of the driving force behind the seaweed industry's boom is the accompanying wave of interest in health foods, "neutraceuticals" and nutritional supplements. It's also become more popular to feed to cows because of possible environmental benefits.
But the property owners have their own environmental concerns, arguing in the lawsuit they "think that rockweed is a vital cornerstone of the Gulf of Maine food web, and other species depend on it," Smith said. "The concern had to do with the extraction of a resource that all these fisheries depend on."
Seaver, Angera and others in the business said it's unclear how the ruling will shape the seaweed harvest in years to come, other than that harvesters will now need to ask permission from landowners. That differs from the harvest of tidal resources such as clams, which are considered a public resource under the law. Rockweed is also just one of several kinds of seaweed harvested in Maine.
Jean-Paul Deveau, president of Acadian Seaplants, said in a statement last month the ruling is "extremely unfortunate" for an industry he believes is at the forefront of "creating sustainable and environmentally friendly products." Seaver said he thinks the ruling creates "impossible problems" for harvesters and landowners.
"I have a feeling someone's just going to say, 'We have to go to court to figure this out,'" he said.