I attended the Rockweed Working Group's meeting on Wednesday, April 1, 2015 in Bangor, ME. The Rockweed Working Group is made up of 5 scientists who are volunteering their time help determine how this brown algae should be managed within the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) fisheries management plans before rockweed harvesting takes off as a larger commercial industry. The group has been charged with providing recommendations to DMR about areas that should be designated as closures and prohibit rockweed harvesting. Portions of the coast or islands can only be designated as closures if doing so protects "sensitive" wildlife areas, as determined and justified by scientific evidence. The group has already reviewed the justification for restricting harvesting in specific areas along the coast of Maine during certain times of year to protect declining populations of shore birds. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife tracks changes in bird populations along the coast, and provided data to help the working group determine timing and location of these closures.
At Wednesday's meeting, the discussion focused on whether Harbor and Gray seals should be classified as sensitive species, and if yes, whether their habitat should be considered for closure. Populations of seals seem to be doing well and so it was challenging to determine whether or not pupping ledges should be closed to rockweed harvesting during pupping season. The Marine Mammal Protection Act does prohibit individuals from changing the behavior of a marine mammal and so, in a sense, the Federal MMPA would already prohibit rockweed harvesting in any areas that are close enough to disrupts seals. Dr. Brian Beal also presented a literature review of the impact of rockweed harvesting on invertebrates. He concluded that the current evidence from research does not show a major impact of harvesting on intertidal invertebrates; however, more studies need to be done.
A segment of the meeting was dedicated to figuring out how the Working Group will address intertidal habitat that is owned by or adjacent to conserved lands. A resolution on this issue was not reached. I used this agenda item as an opportunity to follow up on a letter I had submitted last week on behalf of Hurricane Island (see the letter here) and asked that the Working Group consider the intertidal habitat owned or used by field stations and marine labs for educational and scientific purposes to be closed to commercial harvest. The members of the group were extremely receptive to this idea and so I am working to gather the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates for the areas that should be closed. Once this information has been gathered, I will submit it to DMR for consideration along with the Working Group's recommendations.