FREEPORT — As Town Council workshops go, this one was tasty.
With a crock-pot of chowder simmering on a side table, Shellfish Commission members presented councilors with the elements of a long-term plan designed to preserve shellfish beds while expanding the range of species to be harvested.
Last month, councilors agreed to set aside $100,000 in the fiscal year 2013 capital improvements budget to fund a plan, on the condition they learn more about the plan before the money can be spent.
“This is a small investment that can pay off a huge return,” commission Chairman Chad Coffin said before asking Brian F. Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, to outline what has damaged the shellfish beds.
The commission estimates there are 176 acres of local clam flats, but Coffin estimated about 70 percent of flats have been lost because of a variety of predators.
It was up to Beal to describe the green crabs that feast on soft-shell clams and mussels, and what to do about live ones caught in the flats.
“It is absolutely a menace,” he said. “I have no qualms about squashing it, and I am an ecologist.”
The soft-shell clams are endangered by more than green crabs, an invasive species Beal said did not appear in Portland until 1900 and in Freeport until 1935. Shellfish stocks are also threatened by creatures including milky ribbon worms and moon snails, both of which can invade shells and eat smaller clams.
Beal said the university-associated Downeast Institute in Beals has been successful raising shellfish and seeding them in flats throughout the state. Seeded stocks are protected by netting that keeps some predators out.
Commission members at the April 26 workshop said a first step will be using netting for protection of existing stocks while determining which flats are hardest hit by predators.
“We are under definite attack,” commission member Walt Coffin said, “but we want to catch the natural seed before investing in soft shells.”
While graphic in his description of predators, Beal was also optimistic in his view of growing conditions, because tidal streams from bays and coves in Brunswick and Harpswell provide plenty of young shellfish to settle in local flats.
Relatively warm local waters nurture faster shellfish growth, and Beal said mature soft-shell clams 2 or 3 inches in length produce up to 10 million sperm and egg cells annually.
Preliminary conservation plans developed by the commission and Marine Officer Tom Kay call for using traps to catch green crabs. The traps are estimated to cost about $70 each.
Trapping locations will be varied, with a boat owner hired seasonally to set and pull the traps. Netting on rolls costing about $4,700 each would be set in varied locations. Beal described netting areas as frequently being 12 feet by 20 feet.
Commission members eventually hope to plant new stocks in local waters, with some species picked to accommodate warming water temperatures. Scallops, quahogs and oysters were species mentioned, but commission reports said members are looking into state grants to pay for seeding projects.