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 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.
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.