Brunswick, other coastal towns forming clam lobby

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BRUNSWICK — After suffering several legislative defeats in Augusta, town officials charged with regulating marine resources are setting up a lobby to push their agenda through the Statehouse.

Their goal is to end a power struggle between clam harvesters and marine worm harvesters over access to the town’s mud flats.

Members of the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, as well as the town’s harbor master, say that important clam conservation closures are being destroyed by worm harvesters, and they have no authority to stop it.

On Sept. 24, Brunswick leaders called a meeting with elected representatives from 10 other coastal towns to discuss the issue.

“We all have a common interest,” said Mark Latti, chairman of Brunswick’s marine resources committee. “(We’re) looking to protect the intertidal area where we’ve got clams.”

Elected officials from towns that included Yarmouth, Thomaston, Cushing and Harpswell gathered in Council Chambers in Brunswick to discuss the problems they’ve encountered in trying to close off clam-growing conservation areas.

They all told similar stories about worm digging in their closed areas.

“The biggest concern for us right now … is reseeding areas,” said Danny Staples, a Cushing selectman and head of the five-town Georges River Shellfish Management Committee. That committee represents the towns of St. George, South Thomaston, Thomaston, Warren, and Cushing.

“A worm group can go in the very next day and devastate it,” he said.

Towns that manage clam licenses can only restrict clam diggers from closed conservation areas. Marine worm diggers, on the other hand, are regulated by the state, and have very few harvesting restrictions.

This discrepancy came to a head recently in Brunswick, when the town’s marine resources committee reopened a conservation closure because it was repeatedly being “rolled” by worm diggers.

Brunswick Harbor Master Dan Devereaux said it was a matter of “equity;” it didn’t make sense to have clam diggers stand by as bait worm diggers dug through their product, he said.

“There’s no way for the town to protect (conservation closures) from being disturbed,” said Latti.

The conflict comes at a time when the resource is particularly stressed: soft-shell clam landings have been steadily declining statewide since the late 1970s, from almost 40 million pounds in 1977 to just about 10 million pounds in 2014, according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Scientists and local resource managers have linked the drop to ocean acidification, invasive green crab predation, and a disease called neoplasia.

“This is an emergency situation here,” said Staples, of Cushing. He urged meeting attendees to immediately begin crafting a strategy to gain authority over conservation closures, because the “other group,” he said, “is very well organized.”

Sitting in the back of that meeting were the four founding members of the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association,  the so-called “other side.”

They had not been officially invited to the public meeting.

From the back row, they watched as officials told story after story of wormers destroying clam flats.

At one point, Dan Harrington, the group’s president, raised his hand.

“A good first step would have been to invite us here, rather than have a meeting like this, where we’re excluded from it,” he said.

None of the officials in attendance responded.

A few minutes later, the wormers stood up and walked out of the room.

“I cannot sit here, and listen to them say every single problem they have being my fault,” worm digger John Renwick said on his way out of the room. “The whole thing is a joke.”

The other side

At a recent meeting of the worm harvesters association at the Montsweag Roadhouse in Woolwich, Vice President Jim Arsenault spread his arms out to the group of about 10 people at the table.

“When the people in Brunswick talk about that well-organized lobby,” he said, “well, you’re looking at them, right here.”

The association formed last year in response to legislation introduced by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and endorsed by the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee. Initially designed to keep marine worm harvesters out of town conservation closures, the bill eventually became a green crab predator control project.

Harrington, Arsenault, and others organized a large group of worm diggers to come testify in opposition, which resulted in many provisions of the bill being struck.

Members of the association point to multiple studies, done by Brian Beal of the University of Maine and William Ambrose of Bates College, that find that worm digging’s effect on juvenile clams is “benign,” and “probably overstated.

“What (the marine resource committee) really desires is to put us under their municipal controls,” said Arsenault.

Association officers respond to accusations of having a “steel grip” hold over their members as “blatant misrepresentation.”

Instead, worm digging is the “last free industry” in Maine, Harrington said, and diggers feel threatened by towns trying to exercise authority over their right to access the mud flats.

Renwick, who is the group’s secretary, said diggers lose money and a day’s work by going to testify.

“Should we allow towns to take over … just so clammers can have a better of time of it?,” Harrington said.

The Brunswick Marine Resources Committee is “enflaring a situation … that doesn’t really exist to any large degree,” Harrington said.

Instead, the push by Brunswick officials, Arsenault suggested, “is nothing more than an old-style smear campaign.”

“They’re trying to crucify us in the court of public opinion,” he said at the association meeting Sept. 15.

He added that wormers hope “to someday have a real executive director to actually defend us in Augusta.”

Next steps

Back in Brunswick, the talk had also turned toward the Statehouse.

State Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, presented legislation she drafted and submitted to the Legislative Council.

Her bill would allow municipalities with shellfish conservation programs to apply, through the state’s Department of Marine Resources, to restrict harvesting by all fisheries in its closed conservation areas.

“If this does get to the legislative level … we’re going to need all hands on deck,” Devereaux said.

Latti agreed. Organization should start from “within” the leaders in attendance, he said, and then expand with “a lobbyist, as well as with a grassroots effort.”

At the end of the meeting, about five people, including Devereaux and Staples, volunteered to be on a smaller steering committee to craft strategy for the larger group.

Speaking afterwards, Darcie Couture, Brunswick’s marine consultant, said she was optimistic about the newly formed organization.

“This is the first time I’ve seen 10 significant clamming communities … all agree we have to focus on one thing,” she said.

There are a “variety of factors” affecting clam populations, Couture said, but “Unfortunately, the one thing we can actually do anything about is harvest activity.”

Updated Oct. 6: The legislation sponsored in 2014 by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky was for a green crab predator control project.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Clam and worm diggers turn the mud at low tide at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick Sept. 27. The mud flat was recently opened in a controversial decision after being closed for conservation.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.