Conflict between clammers, wormers comes to a head in Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — In the past year, Brunswick Harbor Master Dan Devereaux has seen something he hasn’t found in a while in the mud flats off Thomas Point Beach.

A whole lot of clams.

“This season and last there’s just a great natural set of clams out there,” he said Wednesday, Sept. 2.

With soft-shell clam stocks plummeting statewide, and an inundation of invasive green crabs preying on the shellfish in 2012-13, the sets at Thomas Point are a glimmer of hope in the usual muck.

Devereaux said he and his staff counted between 200 and 300 juvenile clams per square foot in their surveys. “That’s a lot, a lot, of clams,” he said.

Almost 90 percent of those clams were undersized, but more than half of those would grow to harvest size by next year, he said.

When Devereaux reported those numbers to the town’s marine resource committee in the spring, they quickly moved to close the flats as a shellfish growing area.

Devereaux said Thomas Point is one of the best natural seed areas in the region; historically, young clams have been harvested from Thomas Point to re-stock soft-shell clam populations in West Bath, Phippsburg and Harpswell.

“It’s our own sort of nursery,” he said. “We had to do what we could do to protect it.”

But by August, the committee had seemingly done an about-face, unanimously voting to repeal the conservation closure.

In his letter explaining the action to the state Department of Marine Resources, Devereax wrote, “please understand that the (marine resources committee) and local shellfisherman stated that if it was not for bait worm harvesting … (Thomas Point) would remain closed.”

‘Virtually unregulated’

The closing and reopening of Brunswick’s shellfish growing area highlights a long-brewing conflict between clammers and marine worm harvesters.

Clam harvesters are regulated by local shellfish ordinances; a town conducts surveys of clam stocks, and distributes licenses based on that number.

Worm harvesting, on the other hand, falls under state regulation by the DMR. And according to Devereaux, “they’re virtually unregulated.”

Under Chapter 28 of DMR regulations, the section pertaining to marine worms, there are only two requirements: that worm dealers report their landings to the DMR, and that worm harvesters not take more than 50 worms on Sundays.

A license to dig worms costs $50, and there is no cap to how many licenses can be issued.

So when Brunswick closed the shellfish growing area at Thomas Point to harvesting, they could only enforce that closure on their own licensees: soft-shell clammers.

Devereaux said he originally put out a “nice little sign” out on the flat, asking harvesters to not dig in the conservation closure.

But, according to him, that didn’t work.

“The worm harvesters were still out there, I’m talking 20 worm harvesters a day, in the closed areas,” he said.

Like clams, worms are dug out of the mud at low tide with rakes. And also like harvesting clams, digging the animals out of the mud results in some excess mortality.

“So when you got clammers standing out on the banks, watching the mud get rolled and rolled and rolled by worm diggers, and they know they could be in there … what are you going to do?” Devereaux said.

“These are not the (wormers) of yesteryear … bait-worm harvesters used to do their own closures. Now it’s every day, day in, day out.”

Darcie Couture, lead scientist of Resource Access International and Brunswick’s marine consultant, said Tuesday that a good way to understand the competing fisheries is by visualizing a food bank.

“Say you have a food bank full of beef stew,” she said. Then, instead of people going in to eat the stew, other people are allowed to go in, dump out the stew, and then redeem the cans while state troopers keep the hungry people out.

“That’s kind of like what’s happening in Brunswick,” she said.

‘We’re folding our hand’

According to Devereaux, neither he or the town have authority to limit the harvesting of marine worms because they are regulated by the state.

The only “equitable” thing to do at Thomas Point, he said, was to re-open the flats so clammers could harvest as well.

“We’re folding our hand,” Devereaux told the Town Council On Tuesday, Sept. 8.

As for all the harvesting happening in that dense seed bed, “I worry about it,” he added.

The Brunswick Marine Resources Committee’s inability to keep harvesters out of their conservation closures is not for lack of trying.

“We’ve been back to the state on numerous occasions … that wasn’t good enough,” Devereaux said Tuesday.

A bill that would have banned marine worm harvesting from local conservation closures, sponsored by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was gutted in the Legislature last session, after drawing heated testimony from both sides.

“There is a large individual worm lobby that always shows up there, and they’re very well organized,” Devereaux said.

The Maine bait-worm market is dominated by a few major buyers, he said. Couture compares their sway on the fishery to “old-style union bosses.”

“They have a steel grip on the industry,” she said Tuesday.

But wormers have a different view of the power dynamic.

In testimony, they repeatedly have said towns like Brunswick are trying to take control of the flats to keep another fishery out.

“It appears to me that worm diggers are the last truly free people on the Maine coast, and there are a faction of clammers, among others, that want more laws imposed on us, simply because we are free,” Phil Harrington, owner of Harrington Bait in Woolwich, told a previous session of the Legislature.

“We harm no one, (and) according to research, we are no threat to the clam industry. We simply provide fishing bait,” he said. “It is my opinion that the Brunswick shellfish committee is seeking sweeping control over both industries.”

Gearing up to fight

When Devereaux reported the loss of the conservation closure to the Town Council on Tuesday, he found a sympathetic audience.

“This sounds like a real tragedy to me,” Councilor Jane Millet said.

“We have to stand up, we have to fight,” Councilor David Watson added.

Devereaux said municipal leaders from other coastal towns with clam and marine worm conflicts plan to meet in Brunswick Sept. 24, and he invited the Brunswick councilors to attend. He said they hope to find a way to limit worm harvesting in conservation areas.

He said he wants a quick, peaceful resolution. When tempers flare, he said, “tires are slashed, things get burned … we don’t want that again.”

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

Marine worm harvesters rake the mud of Woodward Cove in Brunswick in rows to find their catch. Town officials say they cannot keep worm harvesting out of areas closed for conservation of soft-shell clams.

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.