Four area towns placed in the top 10 producers for softshell clams during 2016, according to landings data released by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) during the recent Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport. The top 10 towns accounted for 52% of the statewide total of approximately 7.4 million pounds, which is down from the 2015 total of over 9.2 million pounds and the 2006 total of nearly 9.6 million pounds. The four area towns include second-place Machiasport, fourth-place Lubec, fifth-place Perry and 10th-place Cutler. Waldoboro placed at the top of the list for two years running.
On March 2 the forum focused on the shellfish industry, with a lineup of speakers addressing topics ranging from the scientific to local management practice.
Dr. Brian Beal, director of research at the Downeast Institute in Beals, led off by describing his research into the factors that promote -- or prevent -- clam development, concluding that predators are the major threat to the industry. "Increasing seawater temperatures have little effect on clams," he said, "but green crabs love it." Developing local strategies to combat these invasive creatures will have the biggest effect, he said. "Clammers often say green crabs aren't a problem because they don't see them," Beal stated in a comment mirrored later by Chad Coffin of the Maine Clammers Association. "But they're still there."
Beal called crab‑trapping programs "ineffective" and also said that fencing is "not recommended because of the labor costs." Further work on developing ways to combat these pests is needed, he said. Attempts to modify the acidity levels of the clam beds through the use of shells was also shown to be unproductive.
"Clams seldom repopulate the flats where they are," said Beal, showing slides of the life‑cycle and how the microscopic fertilized eggs drift with the current before reaching the stage where they can move on their own -- an ability that is lost as they mature and ultimately settle into the bottom.
DMR Public Health Bureau Director Kohl Kanwit spoke on the subject of "Who owns the intertidal zone?" She referred to the public trust doctrine when she pointed out that unless otherwise deeded, property owners own "to the mean low-water line," but the public has the historic right to access the intertidal zone for "fishing, fowling or navigation" up to the "mean high-water line." Shellfish are included in the "fishing" aspect of that, as they are mobile for much of their life‑cycle. She referred to the pending legal case Ross v. Acadian Seaplants as addressing the question of whether rockweed and other sea plants are deemed similar to shellfish, making them a public asset, or else to upland vegetation with ownership rights similar to forestland.
Rep. Abden Simmons of Waldoboro spoke of the decline in the state's softshell clam industry, saying that "a handful of towns bend over backwards to help the clammers, but there are others who do not." Simmons, who recently withdrew proposed legislation that would abolish town shellfish conservation committees, spoke of another bill, LD 646, which he has presented, that would allow the DMR to assign expanded rights to "regional shellfish management agreements." Such regional agreements are currently optional within existing statutes -- participation is voluntary on the part of the towns.
DMR Director of Communications Jeff Nichols confirms in an interview that LD 646 originated within the department and states that the bill "is intended to incentivize the development of regional shellfish management programs by granting them the additional powers. The reason for incentivizing regional programs is to foster efficient management of the state's shellfish resources through collaboration. Municipalities would benefit through shared resources, and the state would be able to make better use of its limited resources, particularly the biologists who work with each municipality. The specific additional powers have not been defined but would be through the rulemaking process, which would provide an opportunity, through public hearings, for public input."
Simmons also spoke on behalf of Rep. Robert Alley of Beals, who was not present. Alley has introduced LD 730, which would lower the minimum legal clam size to one and one‑half inches from the present two inches and establish a maximum size of four inches. Dr. Beal rose to address this subject, stating that the proposed reduced minimum size "is not based on biology, it is based on marketing." In support of the change, he suggested that smaller clams be kept in‑state "where the visitors love them" rather than exporting them to states where they are deemed sublegal. Beal spoke in defense of the four‑inch maximum, observing that larger clams produce "exponentially more" eggs and sperm, saying that "larger shellfish, just like larger lobsters, produce more offspring." Beal also pointed out that in 1984 the state moved to the current minimum size, coincidental to a large decline in landings.
Various groups presented ideas on how to improve yields and protect from predators, ranging from suggestions on promoting town shellfish conservation committees to furthering the use of science in determining best practices. DMR representatives did not directly propose any suggestions during the course of the meeting.
The meeting concluded with a panel of shellfish wardens from several towns discussing local approaches to educational matters. These ranged from teaching high school students how to evaluate water samples leading to identification of "failing septic systems" to conducting classes on the clam flats, to helping students decide whether to pursue a career in clamming. "We need more Brians," said Brunswick Shellfish Warden Dan Deveraux, referring to Dr. Beal.