MACHIAS, Maine — In a case that has statewide implications for Maine’s growing seaweed industry and for shorefront property owners along the entire coast, a judge has ruled in favor of a group of Washington County property owners who sued to prevent harvesters from taking seaweed on their properties.

Justice Harold Stewart, presiding in Washington County Superior Court, decided on March 16 that “seaweed growing in the intertidal zone is private property owned exclusively by the [property] owner and is not owned by the State [of Maine] in trust of the public.”

The ruling does not mean the dispute is settled, however. Ben Leoni, an attorney who represents harvesting firm Acadian Seaplants in the lawsuit, said he expects to file an appeal with the state supreme court in a matter of weeks.

“Our position is that marine organisms living in the intertidal zone, or outside the intertidal zone, is public property just like clams and worms,” Leoni said Tuesday. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and will appeal the case to the Maine supreme court.”

Leoni added that the decision has pretty significant implications for Maine’s seaweed industry, which has expanded significantly in the past 16 years. From 1992 through 2000, annual statewide seaweed harvests in Maine rarely exceeded 1 million pounds and had a top value of $227,000, in 1997. Since 2008, however, harvest amounts have held above 11 million pounds each year and have generated between $325,000 and $775,000 in annual gross revenues for the industry.

“This will have a huge effect on Maine’s seaweed industry and all the jobs that depend on it,” Leoni said of the ruling.

The appeal will allow Acadian Seaplants and other harvesters to continue operating as they have previously while they wait for the supreme court to decide that matter, he added. In the meantime, his client will avoid harvesting from the plaintiffs’ properties on Roque Island and in Pembroke.

Gordon Smith represented brothers Kenneth and Carl Ross and the Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corp., who had filed the suit against Acadian Seaplants. He said Tuesday his clients are pleased with the decision.

“It is an ecological issue for them,” Smith said of his clients, adding it is not clear what kind of impact harvesting wild seaweed from the shoreline has on the marine environment. “They have concerns about how the resource is being extracted.”

Smith said that his clients, who are longtime landowners in Washington County, are prepared to continue arguing their case at the next level.

“Both parties expected the Superior Court decision to be taken to the Law Court, no matter how it came out,” he said. “We’re making new law here.”

Supporters of seaweed harvesting have said that since colonial times, fishing, fowling and navigation have been allowed in Maine’s intertidal zone, regardless of ownership, and that seaweed should fall into the same category as other harvested marine organisms.

Smith, however, said his clients’ position is that the taking of plants on private property in the intertidal zone should be treated the same as harvesting plants on private land. Fish and birds come and go and are rightly managed by the state as a public trust, he said, but plants are inherently attached to the ground where they are found, both physically and legally.

“That was a significant part of our argument,” Smith said.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said in a prepared statement that he is “very disappointed” with the ruling. He emphasized that the court’s decision has no bearing on fishing activities in the intertidal zone such as digging for worms or clams, or harvesting mussels or periwinkles.

“I plan to continue to manage [seaweed harvesting] as a fishery and will be filing an amicus brief to ensure the court has all the relevant information during the appeal process,” Keliher said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....