What Is the Hot Commodity, Exactly?

Wild rockweed grows on the coast of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

In Hakai magazine, Ben Goldfarb has written the most interesting article on legal tensions around seaweed harvesting in Maine you’ll read all week. Or is it about tensions around harvesting fish? It’s unclear, thanks to Maine’s hot but biologically nebulous rockweed, and that’s what makes it fascinating.

We are accustomed to thinking of seaweed as a stage, the undulant backdrop against which play the dramas of more charismatic fish and shellfish. Today, however, rockweed stars as lead actor in one of Maine’s strangest resource conflicts. Although seaweed harvesting is hardly a new industry—New England’s farmers have nourished their fields with “sea manure” for centuries—rockweed has lately become a valuable commercial product, an ingredient in everything from fertilizers to pet foods to nutritional supplements. In 2017, Maine’s rockweeders gathered nearly nine million kilograms and raked in over US $600,000, roughly four times the haul in 2001.

Inevitably, not everyone is thrilled about the boom. As rockweed’s profile has grown, the controversy over its management has escalated, ascending through Maine’s legal system all the way to the chambers of the state’s supreme court. This seaweed struggle, and the fate of A. nodosum itself, hinges on a single question, patently absurd yet bizarrely complex: is rockweed, in defiance of logic and biology, really a fish?

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