ELLSWORTH — Maintaining shoreline access, preserving brood stock, better coordinating with neighboring towns and dealing with “bad eggs” are just some of the issues keeping municipal shellfish program managers up at night.
But the payoff of a successful program is protecting both marine species and human livelihoods, according to participants in a May 5 forum at the Ellsworth Public Library. It was the third in a series of four workshops around the state organized by the Maine Shellfish Advisory Council in coordination with the Department of Marine Resources. The council wanted to hear from shellfish harvesters, dealers, town officials and others about what is working with municipal shellfish programs and what isn’t.
“It’s taken 10 years to get a good percentage of our harvesters onboard with looking ahead,” explained panelist Joe Porada, chair of the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Committee. Porada, who has been clamming for about 38 years, said fellow harvesters better understand the importance of conservation measures, such as closures.
Under state law, a municipality may implement a shellfish conservation program to control or prohibit harvest, set size and volume limits and/or enact other conservation measures. More than 70 municipalities have implemented programs. Local rules must be at least as restrictive as state rules and, if enacted, they must be enforced locally. In communities that do not create municipal programs, the state is in charge of enforcement.
The Frenchman Bay regional committee includes Ellsworth, Trenton, Lamoine, Hancock, Franklin, Sullivan and Sorrento. The impetus came in in 2009, after mud flats all along Maine’s coast were closed due to the effects of red tide. Clammers flooded to the Frenchman Bay area because it was still open. This resulted in fierce competition and overharvesting.
Fast forward to today and there are about 70 commercial license holders. The fishery is managed through selective closures, seeding and local enforcement. If an area is closed to allow the brood stock to recover, clammers rotate to another area. The harvest was about 550,000 pounds last year, according to Porada. Currently, much of the harvesting is happening on the Taunton River.
George Powell, chair of the Shellfish Conservation Committee for Deer Isle and Stonington, asked whether the Frenchman Bay group had considered limiting the maximum size of clams. He said such an effort had been unsuccessful on the island. “We couldn’t get the community to go along with it.”
Porada acknowledged that the larger the clam, the more offspring it would produce, but said he preferred other methods of conservation, such as closures. He said most of the catch in his area is in the 3- to 4-inch range. Setting a maximum size would be “a real hardship on our harvesters.”
While one participant referenced “thousand-dollar tides in Lubec,” Porada said it was more like $400 tides for him at the present. He said the per-pound price was around $2.20 last week. Prices tend to rise as the summer tourist season starts in force.
While Porada said the Frenchman Bay region has experienced few issues with illegal harvesting in recent years, Raelene Pert had a different experience in Deer Isle.
The longtime shellfish warden says enforcement is key.
“Over the years, you get a bad egg that ruins it for everyone,” she said, causing owners to block access. The pandemic real estate boom has also put pressure on harvesters’ ability to get to the flats, she noted. New owners move in and put up no trespassing signs. Lands conserved by area trusts have played an important role, but it can be a long walk to the shore.
In Lamoine, town officials worked with a developer to ensure continue access to the Jordan River for wormers.
Porada said his group’s shore cleanup activities help build relationships with property owners.
“The landowners like the program. It makes them feel like they know whose out there; they know what’s going on,” Porada said.
Bailey Bowden, chairman of the Penobscot Shellfish Committee, had a laundry list of suggested improvements for the council. He said the state should hold itself to the same standards as it does municipalities that institute local shellfish programs. That would include adequately enforcing regulations, issuing annual reports and preventing overharvesting. He said the Marine Patrol cannot possibly oversee every clam flat that does not have a local warden.
“The flats have just been rototilled every time a clam shows up,” Bowden said.
“This is why town organizations and projects are so important – because they do what the state doesn’t have the resources to do,” he added.
He also called for the repeal of a law which, for the purpose of municipal shellfish programs, defines the intertidal zone as the area below the high-water mark and above subtidal lands. Bowden said the language introduces ambiguity in where local wardens have jurisdiction and ties their hands when someone steps above the high-water line.
He also said the DMR should coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the complexity and time involved in getting permitting for structures in the intertidal zone. Conservation efforts such as predator netting and recruitment boxes require Corps permitting, a process that can take months.
Other feedback from the group was that the state should produce regular stock surveys to better guide decision-making at the local level.
The council will gather and synthesize information from all four forums and decide on next steps.