Responsibly harvesting seaweed is good for ocean and crops

By George Seaver | Jul 06, 2019

A recent story in the Village Soup sounded the alarm on the clear-cutting of seaweed in Muscongus Bay. A local resident claimed it had led to a smell wafting from the water. I’d encourage anyone who is concerned to drive down to Muscongus Bay, take a deep breath and look around. I did.

The reality is that there is something amiss in Muscongus Bay, and it’s a campaign to stifle a small but important piece of our working waterfront.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a quiet struggle simmering between those who are involved in the commercial use of seaweed to grow our economy and our ability to grow more food, and those who would stop us. I’m a part of that struggle as a local business owner who manufactures environmentally friendly fertilizers.

To show how this sector benefits the economy of Maine and our ability to grow more food with fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, I’ll tell you what happens with the seaweed we buy. It’s brought to our factory in Waldoboro, where it is processed by our 20-plus employees to turn it into products that are then sold directly to farmers or major fertilizer manufacturers, who add it to their products.

The seaweed we buy is harvested by hand and brought to Waldoboro in a pickup truck. So far this season, we have produced enough product for about 200,000 acres of food production.

Here’s what’s remarkable. An application of our seaweed extract to an acre of potatoes, for example, helps the grower to produce between 1,000 and 2,000 additional pounds of potatoes per acre. That means that we’ve not only helped to grow more food in a way that’s environmentally friendly, we’ve also created jobs and added to the local economy many times over as the seaweed makes its way from the ocean to the farm.

The conversation about seaweed harvesting, which recently reached the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, is about more than seaweed. It’s about Maine’s relationship with the traditional working waterfront and a way of life that is productive and understands that our ability to operate in the future is based on our respect for those resources today.

There are some who understandably speak out in concern about the environment. I appreciate that. It’s the reason that I came to Waldoboro more than four decades ago. My time on the ocean with my family is probably my greatest joy. But our harvest is nowhere near an amount warranting environmental concern.

It is true that in the past couple of decades the commercial harvesting of seaweed has grown, but it’s only grown to about 2 percent of the seaweed along the coast. In contrast — and this is critical to understand — each year natural forces, such as tides, ice and sea life “harvest” about 40 percent of the seaweed. (University of Maine, Dr. Vadas, 2004)

In the 40-plus years of commercial harvesting, there have been no reports of any changes to the coastal ecosystem that have been caused by commercial seaweed harvesting.

And here’s what else we must recognize – harvesting seaweed, when it’s done responsibly, can actually be good for the ecosystem. Responsible harvesting causes seaweed to grow back thicker, and that helps reduce the buildup of carbon in the ocean, called ocean acidification. This acidification is bad for our oceans and is predicted to damage our lobster and shellfish industries. There is evidence it’s already happening.

We should certainly proceed with caution with our natural resources, but there’s no reason to bring harvesting to a grinding halt when there is no evidence of environmental damage.

For those who are concerned, I propose we study the area near Cundy’s Harbor, where we can compare coastal areas that have been harvested systematically for 40 years to those that have been left untouched. We have robust records and an opportunity to further understand the potential long-term impact of harvesting. We are ready to help.

When all is said and done, progress is about balancing risks and benefits. The benefits are clear when it comes to harvesting seaweed: it brings jobs and money to the state, it helps us to grow more food in the safest way possible so we can feed more people, and it can help push back on ocean acidification.

Harvesting seaweed may only be a small part of our Maine traditional working waterfront, but the benefits are only growing.

George Seaver owns Ocean Organics, a manufacturer of seaweed-based fertilizer, in Waldoboro.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Bonnie Davis Micue | Jul 09, 2019 07:29

Thanks, George. It detracts from real crises when ones are politically manufactured where none exist.  In seven decades on Muscongus Bay, I've seen many cycles in the amounts of kelps, mosses, seaweeds and eel grass that had nothing to do with harvesting. "Responsible" doesn't necessarily require more laws and regulations, it means the industry needs to recognize the value of maintaining its viability.



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