Boats are tied up at a float at Bartlett’s Landing in Pretty Marsh one recent afternoon. Clam poachers frequent some parts of the Pretty Marsh shoreline. PHOTO BY DICK BROOM

Clam poaching is big business

MOUNT DESERT — Clam poaching is a big problem along the shores of Pretty Marsh and Bartlett Island, two members of the town’s Shellfish Conservation Committee told the Board of Selectmen last week.

“It’s professional poaching that’s going on,” licensed clam-digger and committee Chairman Victor Doyle said. “The problem is that there are so few clams [in waters] west of here, and all the other towns have ordinances and are active with enforcement.”

Shellfish committee member John Stanley said some of the poachers drive more than an hour from towns down the coast on a regular basis.

“This is big business, and they are very good at it,” he said. “We see headlamps in front of our house [in Pretty Marsh] at 2 o’clock in the morning quite often.”

Stanley and Doyle told the selectmen that if Mount Desert doesn’t step up enforcement, its clam flats will be cleaned out before too long.

“We’re not getting support from our current wardens,” Doyle said. “It’s hard because they don’t have a boat on the west side of Pretty Marsh, and that’s where most of the poaching is going on. I can call and tell them what I see, but in order for it to be a violation, they have to be present and catch the poacher in the act.”

Mount Desert has three shellfish wardens who are charged with enforcing the ordinance requiring clam-diggers to have recreational or commercial licenses issued by the town. The wardens are two police officers, Lt. Kevin Edgecomb and Sgt. Leigh Guildford, and former harbormaster Shawn Murphy, who works part time.

Edgecomb told the Islander that it is very difficult to enforce the shellfish ordinance on any consistent basis with limited manpower and such a large geographic area that police have to cover.

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s the best we can do without hiring a dedicated shellfish warden.”

“The Pretty Marsh area is on the edge of our [patrol] zone, and a lot of problems with poaching happen out on Bartlett’s Island. That requires a boat,” Edgecomb said. “That’s like an hour travel time from the harbormaster’s office [in Northeast Harbor], if I can get somebody to go.”

He said the Mount Desert residents who have commercial clam-digging licenses sometimes call to report incidents of poaching.

“But it’s usually in areas that are problematic for us to respond to in a timely fashion,” he said.

Edgecomb said he is required to send a monthly report to the Maine Department of Resources (DMR) on enforcement activities, including the number of warnings and summonses issued for poaching and the number of court appearances and convictions.

Doyle told the selectmen that the DMR is concerned that Mount Desert’s shellfish wardens “are not writing up any violations when there’s active poaching going on.”

He said Heidi Leighton, the DMR biologist for the Down East region, has said that if that continues, “we’re at risk of having the state take over.”

But the state doesn’t enforce shellfish ordinances; it leaves that up to municipalities. So, in effect, Doyle said, the town risks having its clam flats opened to everyone, with or without a license.

“That means you’d probably see 75 or 80 people [digging clams] on the first day and more from then on out,” he said.

As for needing the shellfish wardens to make a greater effort at enforcement, Doyle said, “I’m not looking for a SEAL Team to go to the back side of Bartlett’s Island. We just need somebody with a badge and a gun to drive down an hour after high tide to the town landing.”

He said there has been such a lack of enforcement effort that poachers have become quite brazen.

“It used to be that they would go out of sight or out of range, but it’s pretty much out in the daylight now,” he said. “They’ll probably be applying for moorings at the rate it’s been going.”

Until a couple of years ago, shellfish ordinance enforcement was part of the harbormaster’s job.

Harbormaster John Lemoine said he and Murphy used to spend a lot of time chasing poachers, but once they are caught, they are fined only $200 or $300.

“Even if you catch them twice a week, if they get away with it four or five times a week, they’re still making money,” he said. “They don’t care.”

Lemoine and Doyle noted that some towns along the coast have full-time or part-time wardens whose only job is enforcing the shellfish ordinance, and they suggested Mount Desert should consider that.

Board of Selectmen Chairman John Macauley asked Town Manager Durlin Lunt to meet with Edgecomb, Lemoine and Shellfish Conservation Committee members Doyle and Stanley to come up with recommendations for addressing the clam poaching problem.

Stanley said Mount Desert probably has at least 70 of Mount Desert Island’s productive clam flats.

Under the town’s current shellfish license allocation system, recreational licenses are available to an unlimited number of Mount Desert residents and property owners. Those licenses, which are good for a year, cost $30.

For the first 10 recreational licenses that are issued to residents, an equal number are available to non-residents at a cost of $50. After that, one license is available to non-residents for every five resident licenses issued.

Four commercial shellfish licenses may be issued to Mount Desert residents each year. The cost is $150. One commercial license is available to non-residents for $300.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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