Vol. 3, No. 2
NB rockweed harvest prompts calls for more study
St. Andrews, New Brunswick ---- The harvesting of rockweed ---- sea plants that grow along the Gulf of Maine's rocky coastline ---- isn't new to the region. But the industry's expansion into New Brunswick is prompting concern that too little is known about the effect of the harvest on the marine ecosystem.
The Gulf's largest rockweed processing company, Acadian Seaplants Ltd., based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, began harvesting in New Brunswick in 1995 under a government pilot program. The company maintains that sustainable harvesting methods, an internal monitoring program, and adherence to government requirements show its "commitment to safeguarding the seaweed resource."
The rockweed species most harvested in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine is the brown algae, Ascophyllum nodosum, which is especially abundant along Nova Scotia's southwest shore and around the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. The algae, which has fronds that attach to rocks with hold-fasts, provides food and shelter for invertebrates and for fish ---- including commercially valuable species. When Ascophyllum decomposes, it sheds nutrients into the water, nourishing other organisms.
As much as it is an important component of the Gulf's ecosystem, Ascophyllum is also a valuable commercial commodity. Companies in the region process it and market it locally and internationally for use in agricultural products, livestock feeds, and as a stabilizer and conditioner in paints, cosmetics, and foods.
During the summer, harvesters collect the algae from small boats using long-handled rakes fitted with cutting blades. During low tide, some harvest the algae from the beach using machete-like knives. Mechanized harvesting used in Nova Scotia in the 1980s has been eliminated.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 metric/US tons of Ascophyllum are harvested annually in Maine, according to Glyn Sharp, Marine Plant Biologist for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Maritime Region. He said the bulk of the harvest takes place in eastern Canada, mostly in Nova Scotia. Up to 33,000 tons (30,000 wet metric tons) can be harvested in eastern Canada annually, according to Sharp. The New Brunswick pilot program has allowed up to 11,000 tons (10,000 wet metric tons) of Ascophyllum to be harvested annually by Acadian Seaplants.
A federal/provincial government management committee planned to decide in May whether or how to continue rockweed harvesting in New Brunswick, said Sharp. This follows a three-year federal review of the project in St. Andrews, New Brunswick on April 28 and 29.
Groups have questions
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) is calling for a full Environmental Impact Assessment of the New Brunswick harvest, according to Inka Milewski, CCNB Past President and a marine biologist. The group says research to date has not determined sustainable levels of harvesting. "It's not clear how much you can remove without having an impact on fish," or other organisms, agreed Bob Rangeley, a DFO researcher.
But rockweed processor Robert Morse, President of Atlantic Labs in Waldoboro, Maine, and President of the Maine Seaweed Council, argues that models for sustainable harvesting do exist. "This is not an unknown industry, it is an industry in eight other countries. The information is there, the scientific exchange is there," he said.
CCNB and the Island Rockweed Committee, formed on Grand Manan where some of the harvesting is taking place, also say the pilot program was implemented despite public concern that over-harvesting problems experienced by Nova Scotia could occur in New Brunswick. The groups question the adequacy of federal and provincial oversight of the New Brunswick harvest, and assert that the government has provided financial support to Acadian Seaplants.
"The Nova Scotia experience was deplorable. The resource was not managed well," said Sybil Joan Simms, spokesperson for the Island Rockweed Committee. Andy Cameron, Coastal Advisor for the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, acknowledged that over-harvesting did occur in some areas, but said that after temporary closures in those areas, the Ascophyllum has since grown back and is now being harvested using sustainable practices. According to Sharp, New Brunswick's 11,000-ton (10,000-wet-metric-ton) quota protects the standing crop of Ascophyllum, and preserves its value as habitat for other species.
Feds, province co-manage
Under a memorandum of understanding, the New Brunswick Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans jointly oversee rockweed harvesting. DFA Development Officer Kim Lipsett said the province took Nova Scotia's experience into account when developing the New Brunswick management plan. New Brunswick also held "numerous public consultations" on its management strategy and submitted the document for peer review by scientific authorities, who determined that the pilot program would be sustainable with proper monitoring, she said.
Provincial and third-party monitoring, overseen by the federal government, track Acadian's harvests, according to Sharp and Lipsett. Under an exclusive licensing system, Acadian Seaplants is the only rockweed processing company harvesting in the province, said Lipsett, asserting that a single licensee approach makes controlling the harvest manageable.
As to government subsidies, both Lipsett and Sharp said Acadian is eligible for the same loans and economic development programs open to other industries and businesses in the region, but neither they nor Acadian Seaplants would say whether the company has received government funding under those programs.
In Maine, where the rockweed harvesting industry is much smaller than in eastern Canada, Ascophyllum harvesters must be licensed, but otherwise, "There's no [government] management to speak of right now," said Pete Thayer, Marine Resources Scientist at the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR). He noted, however, that DMR and the Maine Seaweed Council are developing regulations that DMR plans to implement.
Morse said the council is also supporting state legislation that would reinforce DMR's authority to "start implementing the management procedures that all of us as a group have developed over the last 20 to 30 years." Thayer said that legislation would also increase harvesting license fees to help fund rockweed harvesting research.