OFF HOG ISLAND, BREMEN, Maine — Doug Wood has pulled all kinds of things from the Atlantic Ocean to earn a living. He has hauled lobster traps, trawled for shrimp, dived for urchins, and dragged for scallops — abandoning each when the market fell or fisheries were depleted. On a recent afternoon, he was at it again, this time on an 18-foot boat outfitted with a roaring machine that sucks seaweed from the sea, slices it into 7-inch strips, and spits the pieces into a huge netted bag.
Wood, 42, is pinning his fortunes on the ubiquitous olive-green sea grass — known as rockweed — that drapes coastlines from New England to Europe. The nutrient-rich kelp is coveted for use in fertilizer and animal feed. Wood also hopes it will help sustain a growing number of Maine seaweed harvesters for years to come.
“If we don’t have work for our children, they will go out of state,’’ said Wood, whose 11-year-old son, Luke, serves as a deckhand. “I believe in the product.”
Rockweed is one of the state’s most valuable marine resources, worth about $20 million a year. But the harvesting of it has become contentious, as businesses clash with critics who say stripping away the sea grass destroys the habitat of scores of marine animals, including periwinkles and fish such as rock gunnel and juvenile pollock.
Beyond the environmental arguments, there is debate about who actually owns the kelp, which clings to rocks in intertidal zones, areas that are submerged at high tide but exposed when the water ebbs.
“I’d rather see this natural thing left alone and undisturbed,” said Robert Alley, a lobsterman who lives on Beals Island in Northern Maine. “I’ve seen some places where [harvesters] have already been; they’ve raked the rocks and there is nothing left on them.”
To address complaints and questions about the taking of rockweed, Maine officials are working on a management proposal to submit to the Legislature early next year. The state Department of Marine Resources has organized a 13-member group of academics, business people, and conservationists charged with proposing regulations that could win widespread support.
“We need to come up with a management plan that the industry buys into,” said Linda P. Mercer, director of the Bureau of Marine Science at the Department of Marine Resources. “There has been quite a bit of controversy.”
Although several types of seaweed are commonly pulled from the ocean, rockweed makes up at least 90 percent of the catch, according to the state. The Maine seaweed harvest has more than doubled in size since 2007 to 15 million pounds last year as demand for the organic material grows.
Scores of Maine harvesters like Wood work as independent contractors, cutting rockweed with knives or rakes or with the help of a mechanical harvester. They sell it wet to a handful of companies that dry and mill the kelp for use in fertilizer, soil conditioner, animal feed, and nutritional supplements.
Maine fishermen have been harvesting rockweed since the 1970s, but disputes over it did not surface until 1999, when Acadian Seaplants Limited, a Nova Scotia company, began hiring local fishermen to collect seaweed in Cobscook Bay. The area is known for its unusually high tides, sharply defined coastline, and teeming wildlife.
Robin Hadlock Seeley, a Cornell University marine biologist who grew up in Maine, worried that cutting seaweed damaged the cool green habitat favored by the types of periwinkle and crab she was studying. Although a state report says that “few effects” on harvesting last beyond a year, it concedes that no long-term studies have been conducted in Maine.
“It just didn’t make sense that you would take something that is so valuable for habitat and sell it for so little to put on a golf course or make into dog food,’’ said Seeley, assistant director for academic programs at Cornell’s Shoals Marine Laboratory, a teaching and research institution on Appledore Island. “There is no demonstration that it is legal, and we don’t know what level [of] taking is ecologically sustainable.”
But Aimee Phillippi, an associate professor of biology at Unity College in Maine, said her studies of rockweed harvesting over the last three years show that the practice has left the sediment and organisms sheltered by rockweed largely unaffected.
“The majority of marine scientists feel like rockweed harvesting is sustainable,’’ Phillippi said.
Adding to the confusion is a state law that does not make it clear whether waterfront landowners have the right to stop harvesters from working off of their shoreline.
The law allows the public access to coastal areas between the high and low water marks for “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Although harvesters maintain that rockweed is a marine resource that can be “fished” like clams or sea urchins, opponents say it is technically a macroalgae, which means it does not fall under the law’s exemptions.
Mercer said the management plan will steer clear of that issue. “It’s only something that can be settled by the courts,” she said.
The lack of legal clarity also makes it difficult for the state’s marine patrol officers to resolve disputes between harvesters and property owners.
Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said officers generally tell harvesters to move along if a landowner complains based on trespassing laws, even though harvesters could challenge such a directive in court.
Currently, rockweed harvesting is lightly regulated.
In 2000, the state said harvesters could not cut sea grass closer than 16 inches from where it attaches to the rocks. In 2009, it approved regulations specific to Cobscook Bay, which includes a 17 percent cap on the amount of rockweed cutters can take in any area.
Talk of the statewide plan is prompting a new push from critics for a moratorium on seaweed cutting. More than 600 people have signed a petition urging officials to put a stop to harvesting until more studies are undertaken and ownership questions settled. Another 570 landowners have signed a “no-cut” registry telling harvesters to bypass their shore areas. The volunteer registry, maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization, has met with limited success.
“It is a mixed bag,” said Tom Boutureira, executive director of the Machias-based Downeast Coastal Conservancy. “Sometimes [landowners] ask harvesters to leave and they will, and sometimes they won’t.”
Seaweed harvesters say they have been demonized by a small group of misinformed activists.
Robert Morse, owner of North American Kelp in Waldoboro, said he has run a rockweed business since 1971 and never had problems until Hadlock Seeley and her Cobscook Bay cohorts became involved. Morse, a marine engineer, said he got into the business because he liked the idea of providing a product that would limit pesticides in gardens and on golf courses.
He points to state data showing harvesters annually remove less than 1 percent of the more than 1 million tons of rockweed in the Gulf of Maine.
“I’ve been called a thief by these people,’’ he said of opponents. “They are despicable.”
Jane Arbuckle, a member of the committee working on the new plan, said she needs to learn more about rockweed before deciding how to regulate its cutting.
Arbuckle, who is also director of stewardship for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust conservation group, believes rockweed can be harvested in a responsible fashion. But history shows the ocean has often suffered in the name of commerce, she said, citing the overfishing of species like cod and sea urchins. Arbuckle is determined to prevent that from happening again.
“We have had a lot of things wiped out when we should have known better,” she said.