LUBEC, Maine — Cheryl Sawtelle grabs her binoculars — one of three pairs scattered on her living room couch — and peers at the water below her house on Cobscook Bay.
“Look, they’re out there again,” she says. “We’ve lost. I’m telling you, it’s too late.”
The objects of her distress are two wide skiffs, practically motionless on the buttery surface. In the boats, Kenny Sulkowski and Eric Newell are sweating as they tug at 10-foot rakes to cut and pull heavy seaweed aboard. They clamber atop a growing mound of the rubbery green weed as they work.
To Sawtelle, the presence of the men is a dire sign that landowners along the nation’s most northeastern coastline are losing their battle over who owns the seaweed.
It’s a peculiarly Maine battle. Here, the squabble is aggravated by colonial land laws and 20-foot Bay of Fundy tides that award a property owner a new expanse and then take it away twice a day.
The fight has tumbled into the courts, and there taken another peculiar turn. The Maine Supreme Court is now pondering whether seaweed is a plant — which would make it the property owners’ — or an animal, which would mean it could be harvested by anyone, like fish from the sea.
The Supreme Court may be wringing its hands, but it’s not a tough call for David Garbary, a professor of biology at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia who has studied this seaweed for 30 years and laughs at the issue.
“This is one of those absurd questions where you get tied up in definitions that are not relevant,” he says. “This is a perfectly good photosynthetic organism, and it’s a plant.”
Renee Gray, the town administrator who also serves on the ambulance crew in this town of 1,300, says the long dispute has left everyone confused about who can do what. She throws up her arms in her office over conflicting maps of seaweed areas, complaint calls from constituents and shrugs from the marine police.
“It’s a big circle. Around and around we go,” she says.
Seaweed is now a trendy star of all sorts of bio-creations, including kelp smoothies, La Mer cosmetics, health food supplements, head-frothing beer additives, weight-loss elixirs, biofuels and, potentially, the salvation for a planet that will need to feed 10 billion people.
But the kind of seaweed common on intertidal waters of the north Atlantic Ocean is used mostly to feed plants and animals. Here, it is called rockweed; Ascophyllum nodosum to scientists. The long weed collapses brown and matlike over rocks when exposed at low tide. As the tide rises, the plant lifts into sinuous forests, buoyed by bladders of air on its stems.
Acadian Seaplants, based in Nova Scotia, was started 37 years ago to commercially process rockweed. Its biggest operations are off the coast of Nova Scotia, but it also operates in Iceland, Ireland, the United States and Scotland. It has six processing plants worldwide, employs 400 people, and says it is the largest marine plant processor in North America.
Acadian hires the toiling men in the skiffs, and about 28 others in Maine, to work the rugged coastlines at high tide. Newell, 36, muscled and broad, is in his first season doing this, and figures he will rake in four tons on this tide. Sulkowski, 32, thin and wiry, is a veteran of five years, and figures he will get six to seven tons.
“He’s an animal,” Newell says, laughing. “I try to pace myself to the sound of his rake hitting the water.”
The men are close enough to shore to chat. They will get $55 a ton for their work, which is hard and hot. For Maine, that is good money.
“We’re just out here trying to feed our families,” Newell says. He has four kids, he says. So does Sulkowski. Their haul eventually will be hoisted onto a transfer boat, taken to Canada, dried, and ground into powder or a liquid for plant food and animal feed.
Sawtelle and other property owners believe the harvesting is ravaging the watery nurseries that shelter and feed a vast array of fish and wildlife.
“They are destroying the environment,” said Marilyn Ness, who lives near Sawtelle in Lubec, the easternmost U.S. town on the continent.
Acadian says it is prudently cutting a renewable resource that will grow back.
“Our operation is absolutely sustainable,” said Jean-Paul Deveau, president of the company and the son of its founder. “We have done an inordinate amount of scientific research and publishing of papers to support what we are saying.”
The company began hiring workers along the Maine shoreline in 1999. State records say the harvest from Maine waters swelled to nearly 20 million pounds last year, from 131,000 pounds in 2000.
Some of that seaweed was taken from Kenneth Ross’s property in Pembroke, Maine. Ross, 80, is a retired political science professor. He taught in Michigan, but grew up on the Maine coastline, and he and his brother still own a family cabin overlooking the shore.
On a recent afternoon, Ross picked his way nimbly over the mud flats around the bluff where his cabin sits. Clam, periwinkle and bits of crab shells crunched underfoot as he walked the soggy ground. Rocks exposed by the low tide were covered with rockweed. In the near distance, a few clammers bent over their work, digging with short rakes.
That custom is at the heart of the legal battle brought by Ross and his brother. Acadian argues that rockweed is wild marine stock — like clams or fish — that should be available to harvest by all. Ross and others say no, it’s a plant on property like a tree, and they want the homeowners’ right to protect it.
Ross says Maine’s exploitation of natural resources already has silenced a place once loud with birds and alive with fish.
“I was brought up on the coast, and have watched it for 80 years,” Ross says. “I know what happened to the gulls and eagles. They are depleted, almost gone. Cod are gone. I don’t want to take jobs from anyone, but we’ve got to protect the coast.”
Robin Hadlock Seeley sees in the harvesting a threat to her life’s work. She started studying rockweed as a young biologist on the Maine shore, and she likens it to a rain forest. Nearly 150 species use it for food and protection, she says. Periwinkles grow on the seafood stalks, lobsters sneak in for cover and food, small fish dart among the fronds to hide and feed.
“As an ecologist, it made no sense that this important habitat was being hacked down for 3 cents a pound,” says Seeley, now retired as a senior researcher from Cornell University. “For such little, little money.”
The company says it honors environmental concerns. It follows state regulations to cut at least 16 inches above the bottom of the weed so it grows back. And it only harvests 17 percent of the seaweed mass in an area.
“Acadian is extremely rigorous,” says Merritt Carey, who leads Maine operations for Acadian. “We monitor every single ounce. When we hit that 17 percent, we tell the harvester, that’s it. Get out of there.”
But mistakes are made. Amanda Lyons, 30, worked as a harvester for Acadian for eight years, and she said she sometimes scraped portions of the seabed so closely it might never grow back.
“You’re not out there with a tape measure,” she said, on the shore of downtown Lubec. Lyons, who studied marine biology, said she “became more conservative” and began cutting only half the plant. She stopped working, she said, in part because the controversy over the harvest “was getting a bit much.”
Acadian’s Deveau says jobs and environmental protection must be balanced, especially in Maine’s poorest county.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities for people in places like Washington County,” he said. “A vast majority of people will say, ‘You know, this is a good thing.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect total for the amount of seaweed harvested in 2017.