Maine’s highest court has ruled against a Nova Scotia company, deciding that seaweed harvesters in that state do not have the right to harvest rockweed from the shoreline without the landowner’s permission.
In a 30-page decision released Thursday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a previous court decision that rockweed growing in the intertidal zone is private property.
In 2015, a group of homeowners in Maine took Dartmouth-based Acadian Seaplants Limited to court after the company harvested seaweed on their properties without their consent.
Gordon Smith, the lawyer for the homeowners, said his clients are overjoyed with the decision.
“My clients are conservationists. They’re very happy that the court’s holding is going to protect this resource that forms the base of the food web,” he said in an interview on Friday.
Acadian Seaplants president Jean-Paul Deveau said he’s disappointed with the decision, which the company’s lawyers are reviewing to determine whether to file another appeal.
Deveau said he will be meeting with the state government in the next few weeks to understand how the decision will impact his company’s operations in the state. The rockweed harvesting season doesn’t start until summer.
Deveau said the company already operates in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, where landowner permission is required.
Lawyers for Acadian Seaplants have previously said the decision could have “immense” consequences.
“An entire marine industry and the maritime jobs that depend on it rest on the outcome,” the lawyers submitted in a brief in 2017.
Deveau said Friday he is worried about the potential economic impact of the decision.
“Certainly that is of concern to me, to the people that I know who operate in and build our livelihoods in Maine,” he said. “And certainly we have an obligation to work very hard on their behalf to find a path forward to continue to be able to provide that kind of economic activity.”
He said he didn’t know offhand how many people his company employs in Maine.
The company argued harvesting seaweed is a form of fishing and therefore a public right, going so far as to argue that rockweed is more akin to shellfish than plants.
The court rejected that argument, saying even a “sympathetically generous and broad interpretation … cannot transform the harvesting of a marine plant into fishing.”
Rockweed is a lucrative industry, estimated to be worth about $20 million — after processing — in Maine alone. Acadian Seaplants harvests the seaweed for use in nutritional supplements, skin care products, pet food and livestock feed and fertilizer.
The decision is unlikely to affect the company’s operations in the Maritimes, where Acadian Seaplants holds many harvesting licences.
In Canada, property owners lay claim to everything up to the high water mark. Anything below that belongs to the Crown.