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Maine proposes restrictions on New Meadows Lake quahog harvesting

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Maine proposes restrictions on New Meadows Lake quahog harvesting

BRUNSWICK — More than a dozen crews raked for quahog clams Wednesday morning from flat-bottom boats on New Meadows Lake – a noticeable decline from the spring, when the number of boats at times seemed to eclipse the water surface.

Although the quahog rush on the New Meadows has apparently passed its zenith, local and state regulators and the remaining harvesters are grappling with ways to ensure that the clams remain plentiful and the lake remain open.

On Tuesday, the difficulty of that task became apparent, as stakeholders discussed harvesting rules proposed by the state Department of Marine Resources.

The proposed regulations build on emergency rules enacted in April. At the time, state officials scrambled to update regulations to meet the crush of harvesters, who flocked from all over the state to an area closed to quahog digging since the 1950s.

The rules prohibited dredging and dragging, as well as diving. They also restricted harvesting to between a half hour before sunrise and a half hour after sunset.

The rules expired June 30. DMR officials are proposing to make them permanent, along with a new ban on breaking through ice to rake the bottom.

According to the DMR's Laurice Churchill, the earliest the permanent rules would go into effect is July 26. Tuesday marked the beginning of the public comment period, which ends July 16.

Aside from the ban on night harvesting, the regulations drew few objections from fishermen who spoke during Tuesday's hearing at the meeting facility in Maine Street Station. 

Officials enacted the night harvesting restriction because of safety concerns.

But several harvesters said Tuesday that the ban on night harvesting is unnecessary, especially now that the number of crews working the New Meadows had thinned. Others said they preferred working at night, particularly during hot days.

Others said there had been no issues last summer when the lake opened for the first time and ban wasn't in effect.

However Dave Bourget, who serves on the West Bath Board of Selectmen, said he had received complaints about night digging from residents who live on the New Meadows.

"Neighbors were complaining about bright lights and a lot of hooting and hollering," Bourget said. "It's a problem for some landowners in West Bath."

After the public hearing, state biologist Denis-Marc Nault discussed the state of the resource, which local officials have worried could not sustain the crush of harvesting.

But Nault, who has been searching for an effective way to survey the New Meadows, told clammers on Tuesday that the density of quahogs is still high, so high that it's stunting clams' growth. Elsewhere, he said, quahogs grow faster in a shorter period of time.

Nault said state officials had never seen such high quahog densities.

"My recommendation is to keep doing what you're doing," Nault told the diggers.

At some point, Nault said, regulatory officials would have to strike a balance between thinning the quahog population and sustaining it. Finding the right mix, he said, was made more difficult because conditions in the New Meadows are mainly man-made.

"It's a falsely pristine environment," he said.

Before the late 1930s, the northern tip of the New Meadows River functioned like many of the tidal bays near the coast. 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 has since been restricted, transforming the upper New Meadows into 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.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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