Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley, a senior research associate at the Cornell Shoals Lab, was the recipient of the 2010 TogetherGreen Fellowship from the Audubon Society, the society announced earlier this month. The TogetherGreen Fellowship is a grant of $10,000, awarded to 40 individuals annually, to fund environmental health projects that promote education and community awareness. Seeley was awarded the grant to fund coastal Maine Rockweed bed protection and education programs, with help from the Rockweed Coalition.
Rockweed, a brown seaweed that grows around the Maine shoreline, provides a vital natural habitat for lobsters, ducks, fish, snails and more than 100 other species. Millions of pounds of rockweed are cut from coasts outside the United States annually. The seaweed is used by companies as a color and flavor enhancement in processed foods and to produce cosmetics.
About 10 years ago, seaweed cutting companies began targeting the rockweed beds in Cobscook Bay in eastern Maine.
Seeley became involved in her preservation campaign once the seaweed cutting reached Maine. Seeley, who had been performing marine field research since 1983, said she became “alarmed … that such an important seaweed habitat could be cut on an industrial scale.” She co-founded the Rockweed Coalition in 2008, and in 2009 she mobilized the passing of the Cobscook Bay Rockweed Management Area Law, which caps rockweed removal, prohibits cutting in private and public conservation areas, and establishes third-party monitoring of the seaweed bed harvest.
Seeley said she will use funding from the TogetherGreen Fellowship to continue her rockweed preservation efforts. She plans to direct the money specifically toward Rockweed Coalition’s projects of educational outreach and communication among the targeted Maine community. The money will be directed in part to coastal landowner education.
Rockweed Coalition’s mission is “to promote conservation of intertidal marine habitat, and to end commercial cutting and removal of rockweed (the intertidal seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum) until studies can demonstrate that cutting rockweed does not harm the ecosystem,” the organization’s website states.
“The key thing about rockweed cutting is that no one knows what a sustainable level of cutting is, because the test of sustainability is seeing how quickly the plant, the rockweed bed and the rockweed community return to baseline. No one has done all of those studies,” Seeley said. “Yet even though no one knows if it is sustainable, [the cutting] continues.”
“I am starting to develop lesson plans on intertidal habitat for K-12 students in local schools on the Maine coast, which include teacher training and field trips to local shores,” she said. “I’m looking forward to working with students and teachers in schools along the coast and to getting into public school classrooms.”
The TogetherGreen Fellowship, created through an alliance between the Audubon Society and Toyota, is a national conservation award. Since the program began in 2008, the grant has been awarded to 120 individuals.
The TogetherGreen grant is the first conservation grant Seeley has received. She has received smaller grants in the past “more related to basic research on marine invasive species and evolutionary ecology of marine snails,” she said.
One of the projects Seeley is working on is expanding the Rockweed Registry, which is a list of properties in eastern Maine of landowners who do not want the seaweed cut on their shores. “We have 387 properties listed, and more people are signing up all the time,” Seeley said.
Born and raised on the coast of Maine, Seeley is not the first member of her family to become involved in Maine conservation. Her ancestors were Massachusetts fishermen who moved to Maine in 1790, and her father was a founding member of a Maine coastal land trust in 1970.
“My family is all involved in the sea in one way or another,” Seeley said.
“My research has always been done in Maine, and my job at Cornell at the Shoals Marine Laboratory allows me to work and live on Appledore Island in Maine for 2 to 3 months every year,” she said. “I have the best job in the world.”