LAMOINE — Charlie Brown has spent a lifetime harvesting clams and worms on Maine’s mudflats. Now he is also leading an effort to get Lamoine to withdraw from the seven-town Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Conservation management agreement and adopt its own municipal shellfish management ordinance.
About five years ago, Lamoine joined with Ellsworth, Franklin, Hancock, Sorrento, Sullivan and Trenton and adopted a common regional shellfish conservation ordinance. Just one shellfish warden is responsible for enforcement of the ordinance throughout all seven municipalities. According to Brown, he isn’t doing a very good job.
The problem is the “mud,” the flats where shellfish diggers go to harvest soft-shell clams.
With flats in such productive areas as Raccoon Cove, the Skillings River and other hotspots in town, Lamoine “has more mud than all the other towns,” a Marine Patrol officer said recently. All that mud is drawing diggers from out of town onto Lamoine’s flats. Brown estimates that 98 percent of diggers holding shellfish licenses from the seven-town consortium “dig Lamoine’s clam flats on a regular basis.” The result, according to the petition Brown is circulating to get Lamoine’s selectmen to withdraw from the regional group is “a decline in the clams available” for the town’s resident shellfish harvesters.
Another problem, he said, is that nonresident harvesters leave trash and derelict canoes and skiffs along the Lamoine shore while local harvesters “keep the shores clean and free of debris.”
Perhaps the biggest problem is “peck diggers,” residents and nonresidents who hold recreational licenses that entitle them to harvest one peck of clams — about 12½ pounds — daily for personal use.
With the price of clams reaching $4 a pound last summer, and holding now around $3, diggers with recreational licenses harvest more than their daily limit and sell them, either privately or to commercial dealers. Another problem, Brown said, is that the peck diggers are allowed to harvest clams in areas that are closed to commercial diggers for conservation purposes.
According to Brown, complaints to Mike Hall of Gouldsboro, the current seven-town warden, don’t have any effect.
“Our foundation is supposed to be the law enforcement,” Brown said Tuesday before heading out to the flats in the afternoon to dig his second tide of the day. “If we got a new warden, it would solve 70 percent of the problem.”
Maybe, maybe not.
Although Hall enforces the regional shellfish ordinance, and the seven towns contribute to his salary, he works for the city of Ellsworth. His boss is Lt. Harold Page of the Ellsworth Police Department.
“I’ve had nobody complain to me about Mike for quite a while,” Page said Tuesday afternoon. “Nobody’s complained to me about him in months.”
As Page sees it, the real issues are lack of time and lack of cooperation from the public.
Hall is employed to work 40 hours per week, though he often volunteers more time, Page said. But he can’t be expected to be available all the time, and that 40 hours includes not just patrolling the flats but also required training, vehicle maintenance and court time.
“He gets paid for 40 hours a week,” Page said. “When he gets his 40 hours, he’s done.”
Like EPD officers, Hall also gets complaints about violations that can’t be prosecuted unless an officer actually sees them occur or a witness is willing to make a formal complaint. When he asks, Page said, the response is usually “Oh no, I don’t want to get involved,” so nothing can be done.
Hall sounded philosophical when he was asked about claims that he was unresponsive to the Lamoine diggers’ complaints.
“I’ve got seven towns I cover,” Hall said Tuesday afternoon. “I can’t jump to every one of their needs.”
Hall said he patrols the flats regularly, though he often can’t answer his phone when he’s working. He checks it for messages even when he’s off duty.
“I like the job, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” Hall said.
He said it would be a mistake for Lamoine to leave the shellfish management group and go it alone on the flats. Currently, each town contributes $3,000 annually toward the warden’s pay with the balance funded primarily from shellfish license fees. Presumably, Lamoine would have to come up with substantially more money if it was on its own.
“It would be expensive to put a warden on,” Hall said.
Whatever the case, Brown has begun collecting the signatures he needs to force the Lamoine selectmen to call a town meeting for the purpose of voting on whether to withdraw from the seven-town management agreement.
“We have no problem getting 94 signatures,” the number required to compel a town meeting, Brown said. “We don’t want to pull out, but it’s the only way to save our clams.”
Until that happens, Hall will continue to monitor the flats without causing too many problems for the harvesters.
“They’re trying to make a living and I’m trying to make sure they do it the right way,” Hall said.