At Atlantic Laboratories on a recent morning, workers were funneling a truckload of seaweed harvested at Tenants Harbor into a chute that led to a dehydrator. Billowing clouds of white sea-scented steam poured out of a chimney above them. After three passes through the dehydrator — powered by Maine wood-pellets rather than oil to preserve the seaweed’s color, flavor and texture — the moisture content is low enough that it won’t rot or mold, and it is ground into powder. It is then bagged in a new FDA-approved facility, and sold as fertilizer or organic nutritional supplements for humans and animals.

The seaweed industry is booming now, but it wasn’t always this way.

“When I started in 1971, I couldn’t give it away,” owner Robert Morse said. But when he began liquid extraction two years later, selling the seaweed powder in 55-gallon drums, there was immediate demand: Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association bought all the drums he had and ordered more.

Organic seaweed nutritional supplements are particularly important to organic dairy farmers, because many of the conventional grains and medicines are off limits.

Plant manager Bill Peebles of Palermo explained, “(Organic cows) were having problems with calving, milk fever, their hide, pink eye. This product gives them the trace minerals and the nutrition they need.”

As demand has increased for their organic supplements, the company has expanded. It has invested nearly $1 million in new buildings, trucks, trailers and processing equipment over the past two years.

For seaweeders, these are exciting times, Morse said. Beyond supplements and fertilizers, seaweed is used in more than 50 percent of food products, he said, and it is in demand worldwide.

The Department of Marine Resources lists 130 licensed seaweed harvesters in the state, up from about 60 in 2012, and it estimated Maine's seaweed production is valued at $20 million annually. Morse could see that figure rising to $1 billion in 10 years.

Peebles recalled attending the Maine Seaweed Festival in Portland in 2015 and being dumbfounded by how many independent harvesters were there, cashing in on the demand for healthy lifestyle products. They were selling “everything from granola bars to dog biscuits to lotions,” he said.

The sudden explosion in harvesting has some worried. The seaweed festival was cancelled in 2016 because organizers felt the gold-rush mentality was threatening the sustainability of the industry before its management and infrastructure had a chance to catch up, as one told the Portland Press Herald.

But a lawsuit that has already halted DMR efforts to build up its management of the resource may put brakes on the industry’s growth. In March, a Washington County superior court sided with coastal landowners against a Canadian seaweed company, ruling that seaweed harvesting is not included in the public trust rights of “fishing, fowling, and navigation” allowed in the otherwise privately owned area between the high and low tide lines along the shore. Justice Harold Stewart ruled, in Ross v. Atlantic Seaplants Ltd., that seaweed growing in the intertidal zone “is owned exclusively by the (property) owner and is not owned by the state in trust for the public.” The ruling is currently under appeal at Maine's Supreme Court.

The lawsuit hinges on the question of whether seaweed counts as a fishery.

Until now, and while the case is under appeal, DMR has been managing it as such because Maine law defines fishing as taking or attempting to take a marine organism from the ocean. The department issues licenses, requires landing reports, collects landing fees, and sets cutting height protections.

It also developed a comprehensive seaweed management plan and set guidelines for establishing no-harvest areas for conservation, but the lawsuit has put implementation of those on hold.

DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said, “It does not make sense for the department to advance legislative or regulatory changes while the appeal is still pending.”

Peebles said if the decision is upheld, they might be forced to no longer use Maine seaweed, adding that the company tried using Icelandic seaweed over the winter and found it was workable.

“It would have a huge impact on the economy,” he said. “All these (harvesters) have boats, they live in homes, pay taxes. They all buy their parts, their fuel locally and maintain their boats in local shops. And it would create a huge hole in jobs.”

Atlantic Laboratories employs 30 to 35 people, including harvesters working seasonally or year-round from Casco Bay to Downeast. Peebles estimates that harvesters who work for them year-round gross between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.

Though the landing value — the price at the dock — is relatively low, DMR reports that “the majority is processed into wholesale and retail products, creating additional jobs and resulting in a much greater value to the industry and state.”

Dave Preston of Hope, a biologist with Atlantic Laboratories, said a verdict for the landowners would make harvesting and seaweed management extremely complicated. Because intertidal property lines rarely are marked, rarely described on deeds, and often lie at a different angle than the property lines on land, he said, it will be difficult for harvesters to determine where they are and are not allowed to harvest.

“How it would probably go is a harvester would go out and harvest in a spot, and somebody would come running down to the shore and say, ‘You have to leave,’” Preston said. “At that point, the harvester would have a couple of choices. They could say, ‘OK, I’ll move over,’ or they could say, ‘I don’t believe this is your area. Prove it.’ I don’t know how the Marine Patrol is going to handle this very complicated scenario as far as proving these property lines. It’s going to be very difficult to manage.

“If all coastal landowners choose to allow it, then harvesting could go on as it has been," he said, “but chances are, that is not going to happen.”

Morse envisions worst-case scenarios where landowners erect chain link fences in the mudflats or do not allow other harvesters to cross through patches of their seaweed.

Morse organized a meeting of the Maine Seaweed Council and other groups of harvesters — including the wormers’ and clammers’ associations — concerned about any restrictions to public rights in the intertidal zone. They wrote a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills asking her to join the case to defend the state’s public trust rights. In it they argued that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would embolden coastal landowners to restrict public shore access. Clammers and wormers often need permission to cross private property to reach the mudflats where they dig at low tide.

“For centuries Mainers have plied their trade in the intertidal zone: harvesting rockweed, digging for clams, mussels, worms, and fishing for elvers," the letter reads. "Diminishment of Mainers’ ability to work in the intertidal zone threatens the fabric of who we are as a state and our robust working waterfront community."

They also pointed out that collectively, intertidal harvesters brought in $44 million in 2015, and by adding the standard multiplier of three for job creation and downstream economic activity, their collective impact on Maine’s economy in 2015 was $133 million.

Morse said June 5 that while Mills will not be joining the case, he is pleased that she did authorize DMR to hire outside council to represent the state. The case is being briefed in the law court now.

“This is a natural resources state,” he said May 15. “I want to see the young kids have a future here.”

Part 2 will explore the ecological sustainability of seaweed harvesting and Part 3 will look at the legal aspects of the case.