ELLSWORTH — The Department of Marine Resources is no stranger to the problem of gear conflicts in the fisheries.
Draggers complain about the traps that lobstermen leave in the water, and in the way, after the scallop season has begun.
Lobstermen argue among themselves, occasionally violently, over who has the right to set gear in a particular location.
Next week, DMR will address another gear conflict: between clam rakes and worm rakes.
Last year, the Legislature debated a bill introduced by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky (D-Cumberland County) (LD1452) that could have placed large sections of the flats where both marine worms and soft-shelled clams are found off limits to worm diggers.
As originally proposed, the bill would have allowed towns to ban digging on areas of the flats that were designated as nursery areas where tiny juvenile clams could be planted and allowed to grow to harvestable size.
The announced rationale for the bill was that it would provide another weapon in the war against invasive green crabs that diggers say are ravaging the state’s $16.9-million soft-shell clam industry — the state’s third most valuable fishery behind lobsters and elvers.
Worm diggers didn’t see it that way.
Wormers from along the entire coast testifying at a contentious hearing before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee charged that the bill was just an attempt by the clam industry to take control of the flats for themselves and keep the worm diggers off the mud.
Ultimately, the Legislature passed a version of LD1452 that gave towns the power to fine anyone caught cutting through predator nets laid down on the flats to protect clam conservation areas against marauding green crabs. It took effect as an emergency measure without the Governor’s signature.
The law also called on DMR to hold two “stakeholder meetings” with diggers and dealers to discuss the interactions between the soft shell clam and worm industries and to report back to the committee by the end of January with suggestions as to how it might deal with the controversy.
The first of those meetings is set for 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 5, at DMR’s laboratory on McKown Point in West Boothbay Harbor.
Locally, diggers will have a chance to express their views to DMR on Thursday, Jan. 8, at a meeting in Ellsworth City Hall. That meeting is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. and last for two hours.
According to a statement from DMR, “the meetings will be focused on developing predator control strategies to mitigate the effects of green crabs.”
The legislation requires that the strategies “identify the needs of the soft-shell clam and marine worm industries.” The strategies also are supposed to reconcile those needs with the belief “that both industries have an economic interest in properly managing the intertidal zone in a way that does not disadvantage either user group.”
By the end of the month, DMR will present its recommendations to the Marine Resources Committee as to measures the Legislature might adopt to deal with the green crab invasion and the harvester hullabaloo. The committee also is authorized to present a bill to the full Legislature before the first session adjourns at the end of 2015.
Whatever the upshot, the issues raised by the green crab invasion are significant.
In 2013, Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor at the University of Maine at Machias, published a study concluding that recent explosive growth of the green crab population is similar to a boom some 60 years ago that cut Maine’s soft shell clam harvest by more than 56 percent over a decade.
If nothing is done, the burgeoning soft-shell clam industry could suffer significant losses. In 2013, according to the latest figures from DMR, clammers harvested about 10.7 million pounds of soft-shell clams valued at some $16.9 million — about $1.58 per pound. In 2000, the harvest was worth about $9.5 million — 85 cents per pound to the diggers.
The Maine bloodworm industry is considerably smaller.
In 2013, wormers harvested about 469,000 pounds — used primarily as fishing bait — valued at some $5.6 million, or $11.94 per pound. The industry also harvested an additional 256,000 pounds of sandworms worth an additional $1.4 million.