SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Town officials are scratching their heads about a reported high bacteria count from May 2017 that caused the state to close the Fernald Cove clam flats in the summer months.
According to a report from the Department of Marine Resources, the 28-acre area located between the end of Fernald Point and Connor Point tested above 1,600/100 ml colony-forming units (cfu) last May.
For the period from July 2013 to November 2017, the highest count aside from the one anomaly was 130 cfu/100 ml. Most readings logged at 20 cfu/100 ml or less.
At the end of last month, a report from the DMR was sent to Southwest Harbor Shellfish Conservation Committee Chairman Jim Colquhoun, notifying the town that the area would be closed to harvesting from May 1 through Oct. 31 through the year 2022.
“We basically are in a position of looking around trying to figure out what happened on that date,” said Colquhoun about the May 24, 2017, unusual reading. “It really is perplexing, and it really is worthy of further investigation.”
Selectmen discussed the issue during their June 12 meeting, expressing frustration about the area not being available for seasonal clam digging.
“It is a hit to our resource for sure,” said Dan Norwood, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. If the town is able to determine the reason for the anomaly and show it’s not likely to happen again, he said, the DMR could reverse its decision.
Southwest Harbor issues 35-40 licenses for clam digging, including recreational licenses, every year. The town has about 150-175 acres of mudflats, but much of that area is not open to clamming.
“For one reason or another, about half our available acreage was closed, and now another 28 acres is closed,” said Colquhoun, who is working with the Mount Desert Shellfish Conservation Committee to learn more about the issue. Victor Doyle is chairman of the Mount Desert committee.
There are a number of possible explanations for the high reading. It could have been treatment plant discharge from Southwest Harbor or a neighboring town, private home sewage discharge or large sea craft discharge.
Representatives of the town and the DMR continue to ask questions to figure out why the count was so high on that particular day.
“It was really just that one that sent them over,” said Colquhoun, who has been on the town’s Shellfish Conservation Committee since its founding in 2001.
Tests are conducted along the coast regularly throughout the year by the DMR to assure safe conditions for shellfish consumption. This summer, visitors to Southwest Harbor will have to find another spot to dig for clams.
“It’s a pretty nice resource when it isn’t closed,” Colquhoun said about Fernald Cove.