Brunswick senator appeals rejected bills on clam, worm harvesting

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BRUNSWICK — State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is appealing the rejection by the Legislative Council of two bills related to clam and marine worm harvesting.

Both were emergency bills that Gerzofsky says are needed to protect a threatened clam industry that employs 1,500 people. The state Department of Marine Resources in 2015 listed the value of soft-shell clam landings at just under $20 million.

The legislation rejected in October by the Legislature’s 10-member administrative panel reflects a debate over resource access that has flared up in the region’s mud flats.

The Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, along with 10 other coastal towns, including Yarmouth, Thomaston, and Harpswell, are organizing to keep marine worm harvesters out of conservation areas closed for juvenile clam growth, but it does not have the authority. Clam licenses are governed by local ordinances, while worm harvesting is regulated by the state.

Town officials gathered in Brunswick in September to discuss damage allegedly done by wormers to clam seed in the mud flats. They said worm diggers raking through areas closed by the towns for conservation further damage a clam stock already plummeting due to environmental factors like invasive green crabs and ocean acidification.

According to the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, a conservation closure off Thomas Point Beach had to be reopened because of consistent interference by worm harvesters.

But marine worm diggers say these allegations are misguided, pointing to studies done by the University of Maine and Bates College that find the effect of worm digging on juvenile clams is “benign.”

Instead, they say the push by municipalities is an attempt to gain control over their industry, and find grounds for their claims in Gerzofsky’s proposed legislation.

Gerzofsky’s bills attempt to do two things to “support Maine’s clam industry,” he writes in letters to the Legislative Council.

One bill, LR 2387, would “protect designated conservation areas from disturbances” by banning any harvesting, by either clam or worm diggers. This approach is similar to the strategy the 10-town clam group outlined in September.

The other bill, LR 2381, seeks to bring worm licenses under the authority of municipalities, rather than the state.

“Unfortunately, the field is not equal for clammers in Maine,” he writes in his appeal letter. “This bill would correct that unfairness … it seeks to level the field to create a fair licensing process to ensure all sides are working together.”

Dan Harrington, president of the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association, said Tuesday that Gerzofsky’s bills are proof that “as we said all along, it’s not about conservation, it’s about control.”

He said forcing worm harvesters to dig in one specific town with a municipal license would “destroy the profitability of our industry.”

Unlike clams, marine worms are mobile and quickly change with environmental conditions, Harrington said.

For example, a worm digger will travel up and down the coast looking for a spot where worms are abundant, he said. “Once you find them, you can make a couple weeks’ pay here, a couple weeks’ pay there … if you had to just stay in one town … sometimes conditions aren’t right for worms.”

“We have to be able to follow those worms to where they’re most abundant,” he added.

The state Department of Marine Resources listed the value of 2015 bloodworm landings at just over $5.5 million in 2014.

Gerzofsky said on Tuesday, however, that he is not taking his directions from the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, and his approach is fair for both wormers and clammers. He called the Brunswick solution of forming an association with other towns to protect clams “dictatorial.”

“I think that wormers need some of the same protections about their resource” as clammers, he said, and “need to be more involved in the sustainability of their resource.”

“That’s why I’ve invited them to sit down with me and help come up with solutions,” he added.

Harrington confirmed Tuesday that Gerzofsky had reached out to him, but they had not had time to meet before the bills were submitted to the Legislative Council in October. He also reiterated that he does not support municipal licensing for worm diggers.

The council will consider Gerzofsky’s appeals at its Nov. 19 meeting. The bills were initially rejected by along party lines, with all five Republicans opposed.

To get the bills to the floor, Gerzofsky said he needs “to get one Republican to agree with me” that the situation in the mud flats deserves emergency status, and should be heard by the legislature.

“It’s an emergency because of the devastation to the clam flats, not only by the wormer, but by that damn green crab … and climate change,” he said.

Darcie Couture, Harpswell’s marine resources coordinator, on Wednesday said “It’s hard to comment without seeing the full text, but a good bill could be helpful.”

“The bigger picture here is that there is a major problem with the overall stewardship and management of all of the intertidal resources in many areas of Maine,” she added. “I know that frustrated harvesters, enforcement and municipal officials, scientists and private citizens from at least 10 Maine towns have been actively meeting to discuss this larger topic.”

Out in the flats, Harrington insisted that he does not see a feud between clam and worm harvesters, but he worries about aggressive rhetoric.

He said that two weeks ago, in Bremen, one worm harvester had his tires slashed while he was out working. Harrington said he doesn’t know if it was done by a clam harvester but, he added, the longer Brunswick and other town officials call the access dispute a “war,” the more he fears it’s going to look like one.

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

State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

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.