(Copyright © 2010)

There is more to rockweed than meets the eye. This is because we regard it, for the sake of clarity, from highly selective perspectives. To see anything at all clearly, we screen out much of everything else that gets in the way of what we’re trying to see from our point of view.

In the case of rockweed harvesting along the Maine coast, the two chief perspectives look at rockweed from opposite directions, from the economic-industrial side, and the research-ecological side. From a management perspective, the challenge is to find a sustainable balance between the two sides.

You can tell immediately which side people are on by the terms they use to discuss rockweed. If you hear “biomass,” “wet tons,” “weed,” “standing crop,” or “jobs,” you know you are listening to the industrial side of the discussion. On the other hand, words such as “habitat,” “primary producer,” “refuge,” “ecosystem,” or Ascophyllum nodosum (the Latin binomial by which the desirable species of rockweed is known), you are hearing the ecological side.

Rockweed harvesters dwell in the space where the two perspectives meet. Their motive for being there is primarily economic—to make a living—but to do so in that particular way they also must develop a professional understanding of what it is they are converting from a nurturing and protective habitat (as seen by one side) to so many wet tons of biomass (as seen by the other). Generally not scientists themselves, they pick up enough ecosystem talk to carry on a conversation with landowners and anyone else who engages them. But they fall short of acquiring an informed ecological perspective; their allegiance is to the industry, not the ecosystem. By way of compromise, they develop a rationale for taking so much from a given bed of rockweed—often cited as 17% of the “standing crop,” deliberately leaving the rest to carry on its ecological function. Their ultimate goal, however, is to deliver so many wet tons of biomass to a dealer at dockside.

The lobster industry in Maine is a notable example of harvesters regulating themselves to assure the sustainability of their fishery. They gave up dragging for lobsters in the 1940s, and now V-notch egg-bearing females, impose upper and lower size limits on the allowable catch, put escape vents in their parlors for undersize lobsters, limit their strings of traps, set up an apprenticeship system for those wanting to learn the craft, and generally conduct themselves in a responsible and professional manner for the sake of long-term job security. That is, beyond being harvesters, they have trained themselves to be stewards as well. Even to the point of feeding their catch by reliably filling their bait bags, which brings the wild fishery to the verge of an aquaculture operation.

The questions faced by the rockweed industry and ecologists alike include: 1) How much rockweed can be taken without disrupting the long-term structure and productivity of the ecosystems within which it function?; 2) Where can it be so taken?; 3) By what methods?; 4) At what intervals?; and 5) By harvesters with what experience and training? The challenge I see in such questions is that of asking rockweed harvesters to act as good stewards of the resource they depend on for a living. Which comes down to the issue of whose standards are they to meet—those set by the industry, or by impartial ecologists?

Harvest standards set by ecologists consider not only the biomass of the rockweed taken, but the function of that biomass if left in place. As a primary food producer—along with kelp, eelgrass, low marsh grass, and phytoplankton, among others—on which marine ecosystems depend, rockweed supports the survival of the living coast that complements upland forests in giving Maine its character and identity as a human habitat.

How does that work? Rockweed constantly feeds energy derived from photosynthesis into coastal waters from branches breaking off through wear and tear from constant motion imparted by tides and waves. As free-floating wrack, that organic material rides up and down on local currents, providing a surface habitat for amphipods and other life forms, which in turn attract birds like Bonaparte’s gulls and various species of terns—direct beneficiaries of the energy stored in bits and pieces of rockweed. That wrack either exits the bay to feed a variety of species farther along the coast or out in the Gulf of Maine. Or is perhaps deposited at the high tide line along the shore, where it provides habitat and food for shoreline scavengers—sandpipers, song sparrows, thrushes, gulls, crows, schools of small fish, among other wildlife species.

Broken into ever-finer particles, rockweed eventually decays, becomes colonized by protein-rich bacteria, and assumes a new identity as energy-rich detritus, food for filter-feeding mussels, scallops, oysters, barnacles, juvenile lobsters, and early life stages of a great many marine creatures both vertebrate and invertebrate. Because of the nutritional boost from nitrogen-rich bacteria, detritus is a value-added form of the rockweed and other primary food producers from which it derives. In supporting entire marine and estuarine ecosystems, a ton of rockweed in the form of detritus is worth far more than the $40 the rockweed harvester gets paid by the ton. In fact its value is inestimable. What is the going price of a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of sunlight, or a raindrop falling from the sky? Coastal Maine and its gulf run largely on detritus. What is that worth to a fox, eagle, harbor seal, or to you? What is the value of Cobscook Bay, Taunton Bay, or the Gulf of Maine?

The history of Maine fisheries is a tale of descent lower and lower on the food web, until now even primary producers such as rockweed and kelp have a certain market price—not as value-added detritus, but as materials in the raw. Which is the highest and best use of rockweed?—detritus to feed the entire coast, or a commodity sold as fertilizer or an additive for commercial foods and cosmetics. Perspectives have implications and ramifications which, like by-catch, often go unrecognized.

To end up, I will shift from the food-web to the habitat aspect of rockweed. Whether providing shelter; opportunity for grazing, foraging, reproducing, refuge from predation; or otherwise essential habitat, rockweed invites life to the intertidal zone, a hardscrabble habitat of extremes if ever there was one. Yet by expanding and collapsing as driven by its highly variable circumstances, rockweed offers its services to all comers with great efficiency, tide after tide, season after season, year after year. Again, what are those services worth to alewives, eels, periwinkles, crabs, copepods, amphipods, crangon shrimp, eiders, black ducks, loons, herons, kingfishers, and the likes whose lives depend on them? What are they worth to you in comparison to having a tub of industrial-grade ice cream in the freezer, or a creamy cosmetic on your lips?

The essential question is: At what harvest level do the ecological and industrial values of rockweed come into conflict so that opting for one penalizes the other? The rockweed industry aims to convert 17% of select beds of rockweed to biomass. That figure assumes a great deal about the continued functioning of local ecosystems after those beds are cut, their structure radically altered, their biomass removed.

Since the energy stored in rockweed fuels much of the Maine coast, it strikes me that removal of even 17% of select areas is excessive. Given that 100% of rockweed energy turns over every two years, distributing its wealth as wrack and detritus among species such as I have mentioned, a 17% cut on top of 50% annual turnover sounds to me more like a 34% reduction of the “standing crop” on which that natural distribution of food energy depends in the following year. In light of the habitat and energy reductions implied by that level of rockweed harvest, I propose that a 5% cut seems eminently more reasonable.

At the February 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine in Orono, Sea Grant joined with the Department of Marine Resources in initiating a process of discovery to find out what gaps still exist in our understanding of the ecological consequences of rockweed harvesting. On February 17, current findings were relayed to the Joint Legislative Committee on Marine Resources, which considers last year’s legislation regarding the harvest level in Cobscook Bay a done deal. That is, the state sides with industry recommendations. Which makes it all the more likely that the 17% level of harvest will spread to the rest of the coast.

It is up to resource managers in Maine to decide whether to take a short-term view for the sake of feeding biomass to the industry, or a long-term view including habitat considerations and the gradual distribution of rockweed energy as viewed from an ecological perspective. Stakes are high: Nothing less than the continued productivity and viability of the Maine coast is at issue. I have testified before the Marine Resources Committee that I consider a 17% rockweed cut to be unsustainable. From my perspective, a less risky harvest might be as high as 5% every third year in the same bed if closely monitored.

Seal Pup Amid Rockweed

(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