SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Without a shellfish warden here, there would be no way to prevent commercial clam diggers from working the town’s flats.
As Harbormaster Adam Thurston prepares to leave that position for one as deputy harbormaster in Mount Desert, town officials are figuring out how to make sure there is no, or minimal, lapse in warden coverage. Thurston currently serves as the shellfish warden in addition to his other duties as harbormaster.
“Every town that manages its own shellfish resource has to take over its own enforcement,” explained Shellfish Committee Chairman Jim Colquhoun, in a conversation with the Islander. “We always have to have somebody doing it.”
Voters approved a shellfish ordinance in 2002, which was designed to limit the number of harvesters and the amount of clams that are harvested. Essentially, it bans commercial digging in any of the town’s flats.
“Our shellfish resource is so small,” said Colquhoun, who suggested making the role of shellfish warden part of the harbormaster’s job moving forward. “The best way to do it is to have a local town employee do it.”
During his years as harbormaster, Thurston said only about 20 to 30 hours a year were dedicated to the warden role.
“Honestly, I didn’t write anybody up while I was there,” he added. “It’s so the town can keep its ordinance. If we don’t, then anyone with a state (commercial) license can come in and clean it out.”
According to Colquhoun, that’s what happened prior to the ordinance being created. “Fernald Cove was the whole key to our shellfish program. When we opened it up in 2000, it was like a gold rush.”
Any ability to uphold the ordinance created in response to the over digging requires someone at the municipal level who can enforce it. The shellfish warden is appointed based on recommendation by the committee and confirmed by the Board of Selectmen.
“The DMR (Department of Marine Resources) reserves the right to rescind local ordinances if there is no local enforcement,” according to a statement on the town’s website that outlines the responsibilities of the Shellfish Committee.
To qualify for shellfish warden, interested persons must undergo training with the state in order to earn a certification, which needs to be renewed every three years.
“I did my 100-hour course when I first got this job,” said Thurston, referring to a course that integrates law enforcement capabilities into the warden certification. A background in law enforcement is not necessary, but it’s helpful, in the position.
“The state requirement for training is nothing like what the police officers get,” said Colquhoun, adding that the state training is focused on shellfish.
Although the hours of the job are relatively minimal throughout the year, Colquhoun explained, the person who is the shellfish warden needs to be flexible enough to respond to a problem when one arises. If an arrest is necessary, a warden can ask for support from the town’s police department.
“We try to take the minimalist approach,” said Colquhoun.
At this time, Fernald Cove is closed to clam digging during six months of the year, through the warmer months, because of a restriction placed on it by DMR due to a high bacteria count that was recorded a couple of years ago. After five years of samples that show healthy numbers of bacteria, the flats will reopen. According to Colquhoun, the town is about halfway through the five-year closing. Those flats are open to clamming from Nov. 1 through April.
When selectman George Jellison brought the issue of shellfish warden before the Board of Selectmen at their meeting last week, Town Manager Justin VanDongen said he would ask Thurston to continue in the role until a replacement could be found. When asked by the Islander about staying on, Thurston indicated the town could go without a warden for a short period of time without penalty until a replacement was found. Colquhoun agreed that the state was not likely to take immediate action.
“They’ll want to see we’re making our best effort to replace him,” he said. “We’re trying to do this in a way that costs the taxpayers as little as possible, maintains our program and protects our resources.”