Ross v. Acadia Seaplants 
Rockweed in Maine has been the subject of controversy; is it a fishery? Public? Private? Is it being overharvested? In 2015, a case was brought to the courts calling into question the nature of intertidal property rights and seaweed ownership in Maine. Landowners, concerned about the commercial overharvest of rockweed, sued the Canadian company, Acadian Seaplants Ltd., with the objective of ceasing the harvest of Rockweed growing in the intertidal zone. Landowners (Ross) claimed that rockweed, like trees, constitutes a resource held on private property, and falls under private ownership. The commercial interest argued that Rockweed is a Marine organism, like a fish in the public trust, and should, therefore, be free for unregulated harvest.
The status of the rockweed forest was clarified by a long legal battle supported by the Conservation Law Foundation with a ruling in 2019 by the Maine Supreme Court, who ruled unanimously that this wild seaweed is the property of the upland landowner, not owned by the public or the state.
Rockweed, known as “ Kelp” is used by dairies for livestock feed, by citrus growers as a foliar spray, by horticulturalists for transplants especially, and by marijuana growers. It is valued for the fertility and trace minerals, as well as plant growth-supporting hormones. Rockweed is a critical habitat in the North Atlantic, providing shelter and feeding areas for shorebirds, lobster, cod, herring, and many species targeted for conservation protection by state and federal agencies.
The restrictions on rockweed harvest were supported by the Rockweed Coalition, the Butler Conservation Fund, Greenhorns, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Pleasant River Wildlife Foundation, Coast Watch Europe, and Santa Clara Valley Audubon, as well as numerous scientists affiliated with the University of Maine, Friday Harbor Marine Laboratory, University of Iceland, as well as retired US Fish and Wildlife staff.






Seaweed Commons and the Rockweed ruling

While our praxis is framed in a commons approach to resource management, Seaweed Commons supports the efforts of the Rockweed Coalition in its aim to garner legal protection for rockweed. 

The 2019 ruling functions as a partial win for rockweed conservationists, setting up barriers to industrial overharvest. But there is a disconnect between the new enforcement policy and what is happening on the water, all under the discretion of the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Despite the ruling, Acadian Seaplants continues to cut seaweed in conservation areas without permission. Now, landowners can call marine patrol if they witness unconstituted rockweed harvest proximate to their land, but there is no effective enforcement action by the DMR. 

Rather than imagining rockweed worlds as entirely separate from human ones, in need of paternalistic protection, what if we asked: How could the harvest of a public trust dwelling organism center common systems of knowledge, control, and value? We could begin with the emergence of formal territoriality or sector allocation to ensure that each seaweed ledge is harvested only once during a season. We could advance citizen science data-collecting initiatives, social reimaginings of property relations, deeper understandings of social/ecological histories at multiple scales, and greater transparency and coordination between harvesters.

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