Mar 22, 2014

Rockweed bill: Does it threaten Penobscot Bay fish restoration?

Stockton Harbor, Searsport, Maine
Synopsis: On March 24th  the Maine Legislature's Marine Resources Committee will  be asked  to approve LD 1830  which would set up an industry-over-friendly rockweed management plan. 

The plan  bars conservationists from conservation decisions about this important living habitat and by doing so threatens Penobscot Bay's now  recovering residential finfish populations. Critics will call for a fresh approach at the Monday legislative hearing.

Penobscot Bay was once home to thriving finfisheries, from flounder in nearly every muddy harbor to redfish in the depths, from alewives and eels making their way to and from fresh water, to resident cod and other groundfish moving with the seasons from shallows to shoals to deep waters and round again. Thanks to better state fishery management, stronger pollution controls and the undamming of much of Penobscot River, recovery prospects look bright,

But a bill coming before the Maine Legislature on Monday has serious flaws that threatens to literally pull the rug out from under Bay restoration efforts.

LD 1830 "An Act To Promote Rockweed Habitat Conservation through the Consideration of No-harvest Areas" would change how Maine's agencies look at rockweed, the ubiquitous dark green algae visible  at low tide along much of our shores.  

The bill is a follow up to legislation passed in the last session that directed the  Department of Marine Resources to convene a team of experts to  come up with a management plan for the long-lived algae   

At issue is the quality of the plan and recommendations that DMR submitted to the legislature March 18th. The unevenness of the report shows that DMR has a difficult job being both a conservation agency and a resource extraction agency.  DMR bent over backwards to develop a plan favoring  the seaweed extraction industry, and despite pressure to the contrary, giving harvesters a two to one majority over conservationists on the Rockweed planning team. As a result, though there is much good in the plan, its overemphasis of commercial harvest over conservation is a recipe for disaster.      

If LD 1830 is passed as written, the Department of Marine Resources will be working from a flawed playbook, and will gain authority to have the final say on the number, size and type of areas for rockweed conservation without needing either independent scientific evaluation of the protection sites or legislative approval

If instead, four simple words are added to the bill, this fatal flaw that otherwise cripples the management plan will be repaired and Maine will be proud owner of a Rockweed Management Plan second to none.

For regrettably, the Department of Marine Resources has already shown it is not to be entrusted with such a weighty task. Given the opportunity, DMR  declined to run its draft plan by either the public (owners of the rockweed the agency is so keen to ship off to Canada) nor invite the very conservation  and progressive rockweed harvest communities that could have  better shaped the plan.

No public hearing was held on the very important  very industry- skewed rockweed management plan that the agency falsely represented to the legislature as some sort of consensus document. Terrible policymaking, yet as almost every fisher will tell you, utterly in character.  

Commissioner Keliher should be ashamed of himself for acquiescing in this bill. Not only does it puts the profits of a handful of Canadian seaweed companies above the fisheries future of Maine, it foolishly fences out conservation experts from aiding state decisionmaking on the best locations  for setting out  no-cut zones, on setting the minimum distance form the holdfast.

We want our rockweed to grow seafood and seaducks here, not  create value added  products from it there.

Instead, again, industry knows best, and those who could rescue the agency from the debacle that it seems determined to stumble into are  being sidelined 

And if a young man from Monhegan can start up a lobster processing plant that is giving his Canadian competitors to run for the money, then surely  the proud fraternity of Maine seaweed  experts can shift their allegiance to processing the seaweed business here as well. 

The Canadians themselves don't even allow mechanized seaweed harvesters in their waters.  Why don't we follow their lead and make rockweed harvesting a sustainable hand harvest fishery here, too? 

While the  extractive seaweed industry hopes for  quick approval of the plan, Monday with no hard look at its flaws, rockweed partisans plan to dash those hopes.  

The Marine Resources Committee's success passing laws to conserve elvers has shown it can craft  legislation that combines strong conservation measures with fair access to the resource.

 Both fishermen and Mother Nature  are benefiting because the Committee took the time to immerse itself in the facts and opinions offered by all interested Mainers before making its decisions on glass eels.  

The committee should do the same with LD 1830.

The Marine Resources Committee will either fix it, deep six it, or  direct DMR to convene a fresh review panel - one that fairly represents all the rockweed interests, including the public, coastal parks and other public shores and academic research, when crafting a replacement to this flawed bill.

Having the industry devise its own plan was a mistake.The foxes want to eat the henhouse, not guard it.  

But rockweed is a critical piece of the puzzle in restoring finfisheries to Penobscot Bay.  Let's not sell it short.

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