Rockweed Law

What is the current (2021 – present) rockweed lawsuit about?

The current legal case involves two sets of plaintiffs and two sets of defendants.

A. PLAINTIFFS: The beach owners, and the rockweed harvesters.

B. DEFENDANTS: The beach owners, and the rockweed owners.

One rockweed defendant, Dr. Seeley, was sued for speaking out to landowners about the 2019 Ross decision.
The other rockweed defendants were sued because they contacted Marine Patrol to either question or report that their rockweed was taken without permission.

Charges against all the rockweed defendants except one were dismissed in April 2022 as a SLAPP lawsuit. The final rockweed landowner family had their case dismissed as well.

Why should landowners have say over seaweed harvests on their property?

They should, because it is settled law that the landowners own the seaweed forests on their property, just as the landowner owns the oak/maple/birch/spruce forests, or a blueberry crop, or tomato plants on their land. 

These are marine trees. Would most landowners tolerate the taking, cutting and removal without permission, of a hardwood forest or their tomato crop on their property? Likely not.

They also “should” have say over rockweed harvests because state law and regulation to date has utterly failed to conserve this valuable fishery habitat and blue carbon asset for the state. 

Now, then, it falls to private property owners to protect this marine resource from being degraded to the point that many other Maine marine resources have in the past. The list is long but includes cod, shrimp, scallops, urchins. 

By the time we realize we are a place in time where rockweed is no longer serving well as essential fish habitat, the tipping point will have been reached. Rockweed grows too slowly to be easily restored once damage to the habitat is done.

Current lawsuit timeline

June 2024: The plaintiffs have been ruled against in Superor Court and are appealing the Superior Court decision in Maine Supreme Court. 

April 2024: Despite attempts to change the law, rockweed landowners have prevailed in Superior Court, the Ross decision continues to be valid law, and landowners own their rockweed. 

The rockweed industry plaintiffs are expected to appeal in Maine Supreme Court in 2024.

February 2024: Superior Court decides Rockweed industry plaintiffs have no standing to sue the remaining two landowner defendants. 

January 2024: Superior Court dismisses rockweed industry plaintiffs motion for summary judgment.


April 2022: The case against 5 out of 7 landowner defendants (all the defendants represented by Gordon Smith) is  dismissed on SLAPP grounds, that is, that the lawsuit against these landowners was brought “to censorintimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” Wikipedia on SLAPP


May 2021: Rockweed landowner’s motion to dismiss

April 2021: Rockweed industy plaintiffs sue landowners: Complaint 


The earlier rockweed case: 2015 – 2019 ROSS vs ACADIAN SEAPLANTS

2019 Maine Supreme Court Decision

“Nonetheless, even a ‘sympathetically generous and broad interpretation of the public’s rights… cannot transform the harvesting of a marine plant into ‘fishing’.”

The 2019 Maine Supreme Court decision: 7-0 unanimous agreement that rockweed is privately owned by the owner of the intertidal zone, because cutting vegetation is not “fishing”, and therefore not a public trust right.

This means >> rockweed harvesters must have the rockweed/landowner’s permission to cut and remove rockweed.


2015 -2019

(a) The 2019 Maine Supreme Court decision: 7-0 unanimous agreement that rockweed is privately owned and owned by the private owner of the intertidal zone.

The question was whether rockweed growing in the intertidal zone is the property of the upland landowner or is the property of the public. In Maine, unlike in most states, the land between the high tide line and the low tide line (the intertidal zone) belongs to the upland landowner, subject to the public’s rights to “fishing, fowling and navigation.” These public rights are referred to as the “public trust doctrine.” We believe, and the plaintiffs argued, that the rockweed growing on that intertidal land belongs to the upland landowner in the same way as the trees and shrubs growing on dry land. The commercial seaweed industry believed that harvesting rockweed constitutes “fishing” and therefore should be within the scope of the public trust doctrine in the same way as fishing, shellfishing and worming.

Courts have never held that the right to “fishing” under the public trust doctrine includes the right to harvest plants. Rockweed is a long-lived, tree-like plant that grows affixed to the ground. Cutting rockweed on private land is like logging or tipping (cutting off branches from fir trees to make wreaths) on private land. A logger or a tipper cannot remove trees or boughs from private land without obtaining the landowner’s permission. The activities that are within the scope of the public trust doctrine (fishing, shellfishing, worming, fowling, etc.) all allow the removal of wild animals that are transient on the land, not the harvest of rooted vegetation. For hundreds of years, Maine property law has held that landowners do not own the deer, fowl and other wild animals moving across their property, but they do own the trees, crops and other plants growing on it. Accordingly, the harvest of rockweed should not be considered “fishing” under the public trust doctrine.

Fishermen will benefit, because rockweed serves as a nursery for young cod and 34 other fish species, protects clams on the flats, serves as habitat for lobster (at night) and periwinkles (wrinkles).

Conservation groups whose mission is to protect coastal wetlands for fisheries and wildlife will benefit, because they will be able to conduct their mission to conserve intertidal habitats knowing that the law is clear on who owns the rockweed.

All industries that benefit from healthy wildlife populations will benefit, because of all the wildlife species that depend on rockweed: marine mammals, seabirds, shorebirds, ducks, eagles.

No. Courts have already decided that taking fish, shellfish and worms in the intertidal zone is within the scope of the public trust doctrine. Rockweed ownership will not affect these long-settled public trust rights.