Brunswick tightens rules for New Meadows quahog harvesters

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BRUNSWICK — Quahog fishermen boring into the ice on the New Meadows “lakes” will have to begin fencing off the holes, thanks to an emergency ordinance passed by the Town Council on Monday.

And speaking of ice, the council unanimously supported a proposal that could result in a new skating rink at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The council’s vote requiring quahog fishermen to guard ice holes comes amid what Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux described as a quahog gold rush on the northern tip of the New Meadows watershed.

Over the last six months, the area has attracted clammers hoping to harvest a bounty of quahog clams. Management officials opened the area to clamming for the first time in 10 years last summer. 

According to Devereaux, harvesting activity was initially limited to a handful of clammers. Now, he said, there can be as many as 17 boats and 29 clammers on the small lake at any given time.

The lake is now iced over, but the harvesting has continued with fishermen drilling into the ice and lowering rakes into the holes to scoop up clams.

Devereaux said the holes have created a safety issue for snowmobilers and other fishermen because many aren’t marked or fenced off.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to legislate common sense,” Devereaux said. “Half of the (clammers) do it, but the other half don’t.”

The new ordinance requires clammers to rope off the perimeter of holes wider than 1.5 feet or longer than 4.5 feet with stakes and flourescent safety tape.

Fishermen who don’t comply could face $100 fines, or more for repeat offenses, Devereaux said.

The emergency ordinance will impact clammers on the Brunswick side of the New Meadows. The council will hold a public hearing on March 1 before voting to make the ordinance permanent.

Devereaux indicated that the West Bath Board of Selectmen would soon be considering a similar provision.

In other business, the council voted unanimously to subdivide four acres of an 18-acre parcel at BNAS for a skating rink.

Although the property is owned by the U.S. Navy, it’s expected to be conveyed to the town through a public benefit, no-cost transfer after the base closes in 2011.

The council’s vote would effectively reduce the town’s public benefit request to 14 acres, thereby allowing Community Ice to lease four acres from the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority and build an ice rink.

The proposal is contingent on Community Ice’s ability to fund and sustain construction and operations of the rink. The group is planning to present a feasibility study to MRRA that will contain the cost of building and running the rink, both of which are not yet known.

The proposed rink would be near an existing field house that the town is expected to receive from the Navy. Proponents said the rink would create additional ice time for local teams, plus restore family skating hours. Although some of that activity occurs at Bowdoin College’s new Watson Arena, rink time is limited.

Town Manager Gary Brown told the council that the land would be returned to the town if the proposal fails.

The council also set a March 1 public hearing for a proposed road acceptance ordinance. The provision would create construction and engineering guidelines for roads that could be taken over by the town.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or

John McMullen, Brunswick’s deputy clam warden, posts a warning at New Meadows on Tuesday about the town’s new requirement that quahog harvesters mark their ice holes.

Sidebar Elements

Cory Cobb, left, of Cundy’s Harbor, sizes quahogs while John Lambert of Harpswell uses a long-handled rake to harvest the clams through a hole cut in the ice Tuesday, Feb. 9, at New Meadows Lake in West Bath.The business end of John Lambert’s quahog rake.

New Meadows at a turning point

BRUNSWICK — Before the late 1930s, the northern tip of the New Meadows River functioned like many of the tidal bays near the coast.

If the tide was low, the water receded to reveal mudflats and marshes. At high tide, fresh salt water and oxygen pumped into the upper estuary – a flush for organisms and sea life.

Today, the flush is forced through a 12-foot wide culvert, the result of a causeway built on Old Bath Road in 1940. The tidal flow hasn’t been the same since. Instead of marshes and mudflats, the upper New Meadows has become so-called lakes.

Recently, the New Meadows River Watershed Project conducted a survey and forum asking affected residents in Brunswick and West Bath if they wanted to bring back the tide. 

Supporters argue that restoring the tide will return the upper estuary to its natural state. Soft-shell clams could return along with larger mudflats; eel grass, the lifeblood for some aquatic life, could flourish; boaters, kayakers and canoeists could have improved access. 

But some abutters are happy with the lakes. They say restoring the tide will reduce water frontage and property values, and increase odor at low tide.

Some fishermen worry the tidal flow will reduce what’s recently become a 174-acre goldmine for harvesting quahogs, clams that can’t live in intertidal areas.

Meanwhile, questions remain: How much will tide restoration cost and can it yield a compromise?

The NMWP’s dozen-member steering committee will be exploring those issues in the coming months.

The group was created in 1999, eight years after a massive pogy die-off, which some believe was the result of poor water quality and low oxygen levels in the river.

Restoring the tide is just one of the issues the NMWP is addressing – and it just might be its most difficult one.

According to Brunswick’s natural resources planner, Vanessa Levesque, the group will seek a consensus on tide restoration when it resumes its meetings.

“I can almost guarantee that the group isn’t going to simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” Levesque said.

She said a compromise could mean widening the existing culvert to increase tidal flow. Full restoration, meanwhile, could mean building a new causeway, a more costly proposal.

A decision would have to be endorsed by both Brunswick and West Bath, and meet requirements of the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

— Steve Mistler