FREEPORT — Dozens of shellfishermen gathered at twilight Tuesday in the parking lot of Town Hall, grilling cheeseburgers as children and grandchildren played in an early spring breeze.
When the clammers went inside for a Town Council hearing on the 2012 capital improvements budget, they asked councilors and the public for help.
“We’re clammers, we are not cutting and running,” Dale Sawyer said in support of a $100,000 capital request from the town Shellfish Conservation Commission to launch a new program to help eradicate invasive species and reseed traditional shellfishing grounds in the Harraseeket River.
Councilors took no action on the entire $2.27 million capital budget covering the Police and Fire departments, Public Works and municipal items beyond the operations budget.
After an hour-long hearing on capital budget items, including the shellfish commission request, councilors discussed the budget requests in a workshop. An April 3 vote is scheduled for the capital budget.
The commission’s request for funding is what Marine Warden Tom Kay called a “placeholder” while he and the panel work on more details about a program to trap European green crabs and tapeworms, and plant “spats” – shellfish larvae species that would help reverse a trend of declining harvests in the river.
“It is very critical we get these programs started,” Kay said about what would be a five-year plan to restore habitat health and attract younger participants to one of the town’s oldest industries.
Sawyer asked councilors to view the budget request as they would an incentive plan to lure a new business to town, an opinion shared by resident Allie McCormack.
“Part of the reason I enjoy Freeport is because there is a texture that includes clammers,” McCormack said.
The initial proposal would allocate $25,000 for traps and netting to deter shellfish predators, and $25,000 for supplies, including floats, shellfish seedlings, lumber and fuel for reseeding work. The remaining 50 percent would be spent on administrative, labor and permit costs for the program.
Commission member Tom Bennett, who said he has been shellfishing on the river for 43 years, said the five-year commitment is needed to get the program moving, even if councilors can only vote annually on each budget request.
Bennett, 59, said the last five years have been especially harsh on local shellfish yields, with about 30 yards of shellfishing grounds lost each year as crabs and tapeworms destroy stocks.
The proposed program would include traps for crabs spreading through the ecosystem as sea grasses take root in the river. Netting would also be placed in the riverbed to protect existing stocks.
European green crabs have flourished from the mid-Atlantic to the coast of Newfoundland, according to the budget presentation. Bennett said he has seen them since he began working the flats, and also blamed tapeworms for devouring shellfish.
The reseeding program would introduce stocks of oysters, scallops and littleneck clams that could adapt well to increases in water temperature and be the basis for a rebirth in the local industry, Kay said.
Bennett said there are about 64 commercial shellfishing license holders in town, including 11 for students. In past decades, Bennett said there were almost twice the number of license holders, but shellfishing is not easy work.
“It’s freedom. I make the money I want,” Bennett said about why he continues to work the shellfish flats.
In supporting the budget request, resident Walt Coffin estimated the 2010 yield from local shellfish flats was worth $1 million, which could be tripled when the local economic contribution was considered on the whole. Coffin said councilors will be getting a good deal if they approve the capital budget request by the commission.
“You probably won’t find anyone trying to stretch a buck further than we can,” Coffin said.