“Town’s want the ability to close flats to clammers and wormers.” – John Renwick
ELLSWORTH — Legislation aimed at controlling Maine’s exploding green crab population could become a mechanism for resolving the age-old antagonism between Maine’s clam diggers and worm harvesters.
That, at least, was one takeaway from a meeting at Ellsworth City Hall last Thursday organized by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Another, though, was that the enmity between the two groups of harvesters may have more to do with marine biology than anything the Legislature or the DMR can control.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill initially introduced by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick) that allowed towns with shellfish conservation programs to place nets or fencing on clam flats as protection from green crab predation and banned the harvesting of any marine organisms – primarily soft-shell clams or bloodworms – from protected areas approved by the DMR commissioner.
The legislation also called for the DMR to meet with clam diggers, worm harvesters and “other interested parties” to develop predator control strategies for green crabs that will not “disadvantage” either harvesting group and to report its recommendations to the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee by the end of this month.
The DMR’s mission has been complicated by the fact that Maine’s green crab population has plummeted in the past year.
Several towns in western Maine, including Brunswick and Freeport, obtained permits from the DMR to try various predator control methods on their flats. According to Kohl Kanwit, director of the DMR’s Bureau of Public Health, the study efforts fizzled because the number of green crabs found on the flats during 2014 was “much lower” than in 2013. The principal reason appears to be that last winter’s extremely cold weather – remember the polar vortex – served as a highly efficient predator control. This winter’s weather is likely to have a similar effect on the green crab population.
“I would just say mother nature is taking care of the crabs today,” one Down East harvester told Kanwit.
The cold weather won’t do anything to defuse the simmering dispute between clam and worm diggers.
According to Joe Porada, a clam digger and chairman of the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Committee, conditions have produced what he described as “a really wide set” of juvenile clams on the flats shared by both clam and worm diggers.
“I hope they won’t be turned up,” by worm harvesters, “but in some places they’re so thick they won’t grow.”
According to several diggers, the conflict between the two groups of harvesters has a lot to do with the differences between clams and worms.
Clams are sedentary. Once seed clams dig into a mud flat they stay where they are. That means it is possible to do relatively accurate population surveys and to plant seed clams on the flats and know that a significant portion of them will be available to harvest at a later date.
All of that encourages municipalities to treat clams as a valuable, manageable resource. It also can give diggers licensed to harvest clams a propriety feeling about the flats where they earn their livelihoods.
Worms are different.
Far from being sedentary, marine worms are highly migratory. The result is that the diggers who harvest worms are migratory as well.
While commercial clam diggers have to purchase a shellfish license from each municipality in which they work, worm harvesters operate under a single, state-wide license issued by the DMR. The result, some clam harvesters say, is that wormers have less concern about any particular stretch of the flats or about conserving the resources that live on them.
One worm digger from western Maine said that in his part of the state, the problem “is not shared used of the flats but the repetitive harvest” by wormers. “The old-timers would dig areas two or three times a year,” he said. Now wormers “keep digging it and digging it and digging it.”
Said one younger digger from southern Maine, “worms are migratory, and after the worms move out of an area, so do wormers.”
John Renwick, a harvester from Gouldsboro, said that many Down East diggers had both clam and worm licenses. He suggested that shellfish licenses should be issued by “ecosystem” rather than by town, that he thought few towns would approve the change.
“Town’s want the ability to close flats to clammers and wormers,” for conservation purposes, he said. Gouldsboro has closed large areas of its flats to clammers for a two-year period. “Shouldn’t they be closed to wormers, too?”
Considering how long controversy has simmered between the two harvesting groups, there was a consensus that continued communication was important. Several worm diggers suggested that they would accept some regulation of their industry if it were based on “real science” and not just on anecdotal reports that wormers were repeatedly harvesting the same flats.
Recently, some members of the worm industry have formed a group, the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association, to represent the industry’s interests in the legislature and to deal with the clam diggers and town shellfish committees.
“We’re being asked to help with clam management with no benefit to us,” association President Dan Harrington told the DMR’s Kanwit.
The DMR will be drafting a report to the Marine Resources Committee within the next few days, Kanwit said. The next step, if any, will be up to the Legislature.