Written by Paul Molyneaux
Maine, and Washington County in particular, has more self employed people than the national average. In the logging, agriculture and fishing industries that have long formed the backbone of our local economy, nine out of ten participants are self-employed. So when I hear politicians talk about creating jobs and economic growth in Washington County, I assume they must must be talking about restoring the ecosystems that generate resources and figuring out how to give more people the chance to harvest and/or add value to those resources.
But instead, Washington County has seen the logging, blueberry and aquaculture industries consolidated in the past few decades, with increasing impacts on the environment. From the 1980's to the present the numbers of independent skidder owners, blueberry rakers, and small-scale salmon farmers has declined. Only fisheries have held out as a bastion of owner/operators. But proposed regulations for the rockweed industry seek to turn seaweed harvesters into little more than wage slaves.
In June 2013, Maine's Department of Marine Resources (DMR) formed a Plan Development Team (PDT) to design a sustainable Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Maine's rockweed harvest. The 13 member PDT, with four seats given to industry reps, two seats to environmentalists, neither of whom could be classed as a rockweed expert, and no seats given to harvesters, met over a six month period at locations up and down the coast. The panel listened to testimony from people like rockweed harvester, Larch Hanson, and scientist, Robin Seeley, both of whom have been deeply involved in the discussion, but were denied seats on the board.
While it may be sustainable, the FMP the PTD came up with will give the harvest rights to Maine's rockweed resource to a handful of companies, including the multinational Acadian Seaplants Ltd.—a Canadian company that has driven a fourfold harvest increase since it began operating in Maine in 1999. In exchange for handing over our increasingly valuable rockweed to a company that will ship it by the ton to Japan, Singapore, Brazil and numerous other countries, Washington County gets a few low paying jobs for harvesters, many of whom do not live here.
It is hardly a surprise that a FMP designed by industry would allocate access rights to buyers rather than harvesters, but the proposed FMP deviates dramatically from a long history of limiting access to nearshore and intertidal resources to independent owner/operators. Imagine if a clam buyer owned access rights to miles of flats and hired diggers at minimum wage. Or if lobster buyers leased zones and hired guest workers to run their boats. That is what is being proposed for our rockweed resource.
Larch Hanson, a recognized expert on sustainable seaweed harvesting, with 40 years of direct experience in the business, has proposed rockweed harvest regulations very similar to clamming regulations, where towns control the resource, and issue licenses to independent harvesters who have been certified by experienced veterans, like Larch. These independent harvesters, all local self-employed people, could sell their rockweed to the highest bidders, as clammers and other fishermen do. The PDT did not even seriously entertain the proposal, choosing instead to protect industry interests.
The old country western song, "Take This Job and Shove It," comes to mind when I hear our legislators talk about creating "jobs," by giving away our resources. This is Washington County, and they're not talking to me. I don't want their "jobs," I want the opportunity to make a living on my own terms. I want resource generating ecosystems protected, and regulations that promote self-employment in the harvesting, adding value, and marketing of our resources.
Paul Molyneaux is a former commercial fisherman who now writes about the industry for a wide variety of publications.