SULLIVAN — On a rare springlike day in early March, Gary Edwards, Joe Porada and Bridie McGreavy met at the Taunton Bay Education Center in Sullivan to talk about clams. One is a former selectman, one is a shellfish harvester and one is a fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and a University of Maine communications professor. All have worked for the past 11 years as members of the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Program to bring a sustainable and local clam fishery to the Frenchman Bay region.
The partnership draws upon expertise from those who work in different fields but who have a common interest. Their initial goals were to revive a thriving clam population and for the seven municipalities participating in the program to approve a shellfish ordinance so local diggers could reap the benefits. The seven communities are Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Trenton and Ellsworth, which acted in an administrative capacity, issuing licenses and managing state reporting requirements. However, on March 15, the City Council unanimously voted to end the city’s administrative role after a 10-year tenure, leaving the position open for another town to fulfill.
Ten years since the program’s inception, approximately 65 local harvesters, half of whom clam part time, earned a total “in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, which is spent in this area and then multiplies throughout,” Porada said.
This turnaround occurred not just from the ordinance, but also from a clam flat management program implemented over the past decade.
Discussion of a regional program started in 2009, when most of the state was closed to shellfish harvesting because of red tide, a toxic bacteria that can be fatal when consumed by humans. But Frenchman Bay, Blue Hill Bay and an area in Machiasport were left open.
“We were getting diggers from everywhere, from Portland to Calais,” Porada said. “They dug areas we hadn’t even touched.”
“And it was totally legal,” McGreavy said. “There were [dealer] trucks coming into Trenton Landing and the price was big.”
A Sullivan selectman at the time, Edwards said all the towns tried to pass a shellfish ordinance to address the issue, but each town had too few harvesters to make an ordinance practical.
“When you have an ordinance, you have to have enforcement,” he said.
Under the program, the seven participating municipalities each adopted a joint ordinance in 2010 and issued the first commercial licenses. Porada had stood up at each town meeting to advocate for the ordinance.
“Selectmen thought it wasn’t gonna happen, but everyone voted for it,” he said.
In the past 11 years, the program has also secured $38,495 in grants from the Maine Community Foundation and the Maine Shellfish Restoration and Resilience Fund for surveys, research and pollution tracking.
In addition, the clam flats are being sustained through targeted closures and a seeding program.
“When we were wide open, no one was managing the flats,” Edwards said. “We dig till they’re gone and then we go somewhere else, was the motto.”
The program operates by committee, formed by one representative and one alternate from each of the seven municipalities. Porada is the current and longtime chairman. The committee worked to develop a plan for conservation measures using long-term closures to sustain the fishery. The plan was then approved by the Department of Marine Resources.
“It took six to eight years to figure through a plan to have enough areas open 12 months a year,” Porada said.
There are 16 digging areas identified in the management plan. They open for a period and then close and later reopen. Some are closed indefinitely to allow for new clam growth.
Taunton Bay has experienced long-term closures based on water quality. This is where the 610 Project comes in. Formed in 2011 with a $5,000 Maine Community Foundation grant, the 610 Project worked with the committee to solve the problem. Named for the 610 acres under state closures, their efforts helped 80 percent of the closed areas reopen by 2013.
“I think a lot of people forget [the program] exists,” Edwards said. “It’s been around over 10 years and made a significant impact on the resource and the economics of the region.”
“And the families here,” Porada added. “A working waterfront is a key part of this area.”
McGreavy agreed, saying, “Families grow up clamming together. An inherently sustainable fishery provides an important source of income. And you don’t have a boss, you work your own hours, and [have] almost no overhead.”
Porada’s been clamming on and off since 1983, but for the last five years he has been mostly full time.
“The program made it possible,” he said. “You could actually count on having the opportunity to make a living.”