Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness

February 11, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I first encountered rockweed when I was four. Lifted off the bow of a lobster boat onto a rocky shore at low tide, I took one step on the slippery stuff, fell and bumped my knee. The hurt made it a moment I’ve never forgotten. Lesson learned: on rockweed, watch where and how you step.

Rockweeds are brown algae growing on rocky surfaces along the shore. As the tide rises from low to high, it also advances up a sloping shore from “out” to “in.” The space demarked by low and high, out to in, creates a volume known as the intertidal zone, a particularly wild place because conditions are so variable. The sun can be shining with a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit at high tide; or it could be raining or snowing at low tide, with a temperature somewhere between 70 and minus 20 degrees. One way or another, anything living in the intertidal zone has to be adaptable to such extremes.

Two species of wrack or rockweed common in Maine have such an ability, Ascophyllum nodosum, and Fucus vesiculosis, among  others. Both have holdfasts attaching them to rocks at the lower end, with air bladders along their stems enabling them to float as the tide rises, to settle as it falls. Moved about by currents Rockweeds Ascophyllum (l.l.) & Fucus (u.l.)and winds, rockweed is always in motion up and down, side to side, but never far from the surface of the water, exposed to the sun, its source of energy in making sugar from carbon dioxide and water. In winter, rockweeds can lie frozen in ice for weeks or months at a time. Lacking a vascular system, the cold doesn’t bother them by cutting off circulation of nutrients or removal of waste. They simply thaw in March and up the rate at which they photosynthesize the food they need for growth, reproduction, and repair.

Rockweeds play an essential role in providing both food and habitat areas along rocky or ledgy shores in Maine. Living along both low- and high-stress shores, they take a beating from waves and wind, causing bladders and blades to break from the axis,Least Sandpiper in Wrack eventually to disintegrate, attracting bacteria, which make the resulting detritus (loose organic particles) a rich source of protein for the likes of filter-feeders such as blue mussels, scallops, clams, and oysters, as well as other marine invertebrates and insects, subsequently eaten by birds, fish, and mammals. In Taunton Bay, for instance, rockweeds—along with phytoplankton, eelgrass, kelp, and marsh grass—are primary food producers supporting life throughout the estuary and beyond.

In addition, the twining, waving strands of rockweed provide a complex habitat—both nurturing and protective—for small marine creatures such as shore-hugging fish, periwinkles, amphipods, shrimp, crabs, juvenile lobsters, and in Taunton Rockweed at High Tide Bay, even horseshoe crabs. Many of these wait out low tides beneath a quilt of rockweed preserving the high moisture level they need to survive. Supplying both shelter and food to life in the intertidal zone, rockweeds are providers of essential services in any estuarine community. They are particularly important in enclosed coastal embayments having a high ratio of rocky shores to their relatively small surface areas. Cobscook Bay near Eastport, Lubec, and Campobello Island is one such embayment, as are Taunton Bay, Skillings River, and Bagaduce River in Hancock County, and the St. Georges River near Thomaston. Open bays that are broadly exposed to the Gulf of Maine tend to be more dependent on food sources delivered by ocean currents (such as phytoplankton) than are enclosed bays which export clouds of detritus to nearby waters. 

The issue with rockweed is harvesting it by the ton to be processed as fertilizer, animal feed, packing material for shipping marine worms and lobsters, and a stabilizer in foods and cosmetics, among other human uses. How much is itRockweed, Ledge, Low Marsh, Boulder, Shoreline Trees appropriate to take, from what areas, when, by what method? As is invariably true of living natural resources, the issue is one of categorizing the resource in such a way to emphasize its utility to humans and downplay its function and value in the wild. Which is it to be, protective habitat or food additive?; primary producer or fertilizer? Only purists can hold to making such an either/or distinction. In practice, the art is in finding a balance between wild and industrial functions, values, and uses in the human community—between priceless living habitats in nature’s economy, against so much biomass as a commodity worth two cents a pound in the human economy.

Who would ever imagine that the categorical essence of rockweed could be determined by committees that deny membership to the natural food web depending on rockweed itself and its peers for survival? But that’s how the civilized world works, people making all the decisions from their respective points of view, doing their best to represent the interests of the wild, but never doing a very good job of it. Cutting rockweed is analogous to felling tropical rainforests in that living systems are reduced to biomass while delicate microclimates and habitats are eliminated in the process. The reason, of course, is that humans declare themselves as essential parts of every food web on Earth, so of course they cast their categories onto the natural world to insure it meets their desires. This is specially true now that humans have overrun the Earth, and have staked their claim to it as their personal planet. Which it may effectively have become, by preemption, if not by magical thinking in the theological, mythological, or industrial mind.

To further complicate matters, different groups with interests in rockweed project different categories on it according to their personal interests. Seaweed harvesters (getting paid by the wet ton) say it is biomass, the people of Maine (who are said to own public trust resources) say it is both a marine habitat and a commodity, ecologists see it as the base of the estuarine food pyramid, and resource managers see it as a headache they wish would go away because there is no simple remedy that will make all interested parties happy. As usual, the stakeholders having the most money to provide them with the most aggressive lawyers and publicists are the ones who come out on top in deciding what rockweed, for all practical purposes, really is.

Another issue with rockweed is the matter of ownership. Does it belong to the people as a public-trust resource? or does it belong to the owners of rocky shorelands where it grows? ByRockweed at Low Tide_96 tradition expressed in the Colonial Ordinance, public access to intertidal waters is limited to the express purposes of “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Moves have been made in the Maine Legislature to legally categorize rockweed as a “fish” for the purpose of including it among harvestable resources, but such moves have been declared unconstitutional; algae, in fact, are not fish by any stretch of the tongue or imagination. Seaweed harvesting licenses granted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources do not grant or affect proprietary rights to the seaweed, including within the intertidal zone. So by what right or principle do harvesters withdraw rockweed from the public trust and privatize it as their own? As far as I can make out, they do so on the strength of their own will, declaring for all practical purposes, “This is mine.” 

The name “rockweed” makes it sound like Ascophyllum nodosum belongs in the same category as burdocks and dandelions, so is not to be missed if reduced from a living organism to a mound of limp and dripping biomass. The Latinate binomial, on the other hand, calls up images of presentable people in white lab coats peering into microscopes in the halls of science and academia, suggesting it may have some ecological interest and value after all. “Knotted” or “bladder wrack” sound quaint and old fashioned, pointing perhaps to the Magna Carta as a reference to King John’s take on such species.

The more I know about rockweed, the less I know what it is. I know it exists; I have seen it frequently with my own eyes. But  how to regard it with those eyes, how to relate to it as one member of one species to another, that is not mine to say.  Rockweed and I both live on the same planet; here is our home in the universe. We both qualify as Earthlings. Which in my eyes makes us equal under the sun. I am not here for its use, and vice versa. We coexist. Yet it lives in the basement of the food pyramid, I live in an apartment at the apex, which looks over all like the eye peering from the top of the pyramid shown on the dollar bill. Does that suggest I have higher powers or knowledge than lowly rockweed? That I am somehow “better” or more “deserving”? The big difference is I possess consciousness and rockweed does not. On the other hand, it can lie frozen in ice for months at a time, which I cannot do. It can tolerate a range of temperature and salinity that would kill me—mighty predator that I am—within a few hours. In a very real sense, my survival depends on rockweed and its ilk—the photosynthesizers of the Earth—whereas its survival is entirely independent of mine. I need it; it doesn’t need me.

So how come people assume responsibility for managing rockweed without giving anything back to compensate rockweed for giving up the right to manage its private affairs? Is that equable? Is it just? I know, I know. . . apples and oranges. Rockweed is rockweed; I am a human being. But what bothers me is that this entire blog is being entertained in a single human mind, and rockweed is excluded from the action. I can have input as to its fate, but it has no say in mine.

The scales of justice are weighted in favor of those having consciousness, a situation I call asymmetrical, unjust, and unfair. This makes it seem that having consciousness is somehow better than not having it. Which might well be true if the haves actually watched over the have-nots. But we don’t watch over trees to protect their interests; we cut them to make toilet paper. We don’t watch over rivers; we dam them to turn them into still waters, and pipe our waste into them. We don’t watch over Earth’s climate; we do our thing and leave it to react how it will. These are moral issues. How we treat rockweed is essentially a moral issue. In categorizing rockweed as a harvestable resource for my personal benefit, I am practicing an ethic as viewed from a particular point of view.

Robins and hermit thrushes regard rockweed from a different perspective: when it snows in April after they have migrated north, their primary forage areas on the forest floor are off-limits; where can they get something to eat? As long as the snow lasts, those on the coast forage in seawrack along the shore for amphipods—not their preferred food, but it’ll do in a pinch. If the rockweed isn’t there at precisely that time, tens of thousands of thrushes can starve. If there is even a trace of carageenin in the ice cream I eat, then I am an accomplice to the perpetrator who treats rockweed as a commodity and commissions its harvest, or cuts it himself.

In the human economy, rockweed is currently worth about two cents a pound, or $40 a wet ton. One harvester can cut about a ton of rockweed a day, making about $4,000 a season. With cutting machines, he can make more. From a human standpoint, the rockweed issue comes down to balancing the reduction of rockweed to an inert commodity-with-a-price against its value as an intertidal habitat and producer of food that sequesters carbon for the good of estuarine, marine, and terrestrial communities. Wanted dead or alive, which is it to be: tubs of industrial-grade ice cream in suburban freezers, or least sandpipers, robins, shrimp, and crabs along the shores of enclosed bays in Maine?

Which leaves me where? Perhaps in denial; perhaps upset; perhaps in some kind of limbo, committed to a life sentence of guilt and confusion. What about my biological values? Do they have anything to say on the matter of harvesting rockweed? What I’m getting at is the ethical dimension to consciousness that crops up in the most surprising places. I see clouds on the horizon, telling me I will soon have to address the coming storm, perhaps after I feel comfortable with the categorizing aspects of consciousness. Then I will be free to face into the wind and deal with the ethical issues I have successfully avoided up till now.

Where I think I’m headed is toward developing a deliberate attitude of stewardship as the going price for diminishing the living Earth in any way. If we use our knives to cut rockweed at all, then we are committed by that act to watching over what’s left to protect it from harm. We live on the same planet; it’s the least we can do.

Ascophyllum with Sea Star

 

 

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3 Responses to “Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness”

  1. Robin said

    Thanks for this, Steve. I really enjoyed reading this this morning looking out over Casco Bay.

  2. Robin, I never imagined there might be an audience for a post on rockweed, but that’s what’s on my mind so I put it up. And there you are! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ve just finished a post on the rockweed symposium at UM yesterday, which I’ll post for Feb. 25. Thanks again.

  3. Kate said

    Steve, thank for this wonderful and very important blog post. The only thing I would add, is I would say that rockweed, like humans, does have consciousness, but does not having ego or the ability to think.

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