FREEPORT — The future of the town’s comprehensive shellfish project, and perhaps its clamming community, could be decided Thursday night.
If the project is funded by the Town Council it is expected to have the support of clammers, despite last week’s resignation from the Shellfish Commission by one of the project’s most vocal proponents.
Chad Coffin resigned from the commission after councilors failed to make a decision about an appropriation for a shellfish conservation project at an April 23 council meeting.
In stalling the appropriation, councilors cited a need for time to review a revised project plan presented to them the night they had intended to vote on whether the project should be funded. They also raised concerns about getting the appropriate permitting.
Besides being frustrated, Coffin said he must spend more time working as president of the Maine Clammers Association.
“I’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time (on organizing the project) and have to do a better job of allocating time in Freeport,” he said. “I’m frustrated with the dragging of feet.”
The project – aimed at not only gathering data on the cause of declining soft-shell clam populations in Southern Maine’s clam flats, but also as a defensive measure to help deter the invasive species devouring them – has been debated at several council and committee meetings in recent months.
Clammers, along with scientists who have studied Maine clam flats, say an invasive species known as green crabs could devastate the soft-shell clam population in southern Maine completely within the next few years. The crabs have intensified in recent years, propelled by rising water temperatures and warming winters.
Last year, the council appropriated $100,000 to help build the effort to study the clam flats and take action on addressing problems.
Earlier this year, the commission hired Brunswick-based consultant Resource Access International to conduct studies. The consultant’s work will focus not only on the green crab problem, but also on other significant issues believed to be contributing to the decline of crabs, including ocean acidification and disease.
In coordination with that study, which is funded by the town through a matching $20,000 state grant, the commission also planned to launch a larger trapping and fencing campaign. The combined project is supposed to run from summer to the end of the year.
After reviewing the plans in March, the council delayed the appropriation and directed the commission to join the two plans, which is what the council was presented with at the last council meeting.
Thursday night, the council will hold a special meeting and what is expected to be the final discussion about including the nearly $67,000 for the project in the $4.85 million fiscal 2014 budget.
Coffin, in emails to councilors and town officials in the past week, has criticized councilors for stalling.
Councilor Melanie Sachs, who at the previous council meeting wanted to only move forward with the scientific aspect of the project, also expressed concern about the scope and permitting.
She said her hesitation on the project is based on council responsibility.
“I guess I’m a bit puzzled at the reaction. Many of the councilors said they are definitely proponents of savings the clams,” she said. “The only questions we have are very appropriate ones about planning, time and budgets. We just need to do our due diligence.”
Sachs said the aim of her questions about the project is to make sure the “full scope of the project is fleshed out.”
“We want to make sure if we’re going to do something, it’s actually going to help,” she said.
For the project to move forward as planned, the town will need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lay strategic fencing around clam flats. The town submitted the permit application last week and now must wait for a response from the Corps, which could take up to 60 days.
Corps project reviewer LeAnn Neal previously said that without seeing the application she could not comment on its likelihood of approval, noting that the main concern with a fencing project would be creation of an impediment for other species to navigate the waters.
If the permit is denied, the overall project would have to be scaled back significantly, causing councilors last week to question whether equipment should be purchased if the scope of project could change.
“We need to especially have our ducks in a row regarding permitting. We cannot proceed as municipality without those permits,” Sachs said. “Everybody wants to do the right thing for the environment. I don’t see any ill will about having things done properly.”
But clammers have a sense of immediacy and say waiting to start a project they feel has already been through a thorough process is reckless.
In addition to the the clammers being on a four-day work week before the summer season begins and having time available to volunteer, Coffin said the clammers worry that if the project isn’t done this year, there won’t be any clams left to study next year.
Still, if the project goes forward, Coffin said he will help through the Clammers Association, along with 20-25 “core clammers” in the community.
“Everything they have hinges on what the council does. They’re going to lose everything and here’s the council dragging their feet,” he said. “That’s what’s frustrating for the clammers and fishermen in this town. It’s a shame to see the guys clamming that don’t have any money, scrape up old ropes and traps with what they have for what is a mere drop in the bucket (of the overall town budget). The council should be ashamed if they can actually see what’s happening to these families.”
Freeport has about 60 licensed clammers, Coffin said, in addition to 12 processors who shuck clams and the drivers who deliver them to restaurants and grocery stores.
“It’s a lot bigger than the 60 clammers. It reaches much deeper into the town,” he said. “It is frustrating when compared to other funding … they can’t just give clammers a small amount of money so they can get going and try to preserve the marine resources of the town. It’s a slap in the face to all the working class.”
Freeport is the only town in the state working on a large, comprehensive shellfish project, although Coffin said fishermen in other towns are beginning to take notice.
“This is the one of most depressing subjects to be right on; you have to fight everybody to prove it’s happening,” he said. “If we don’t take action on our own, we are not going be around.”
A green crab pulled from a trap in the Harraseeket River in Freeport on April 19.