Falmouth clam flats closed for lack of report by state regulators

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FALMOUTH — A failure by the Maine Department of Marine Resources to conduct a shoreline survey has resulted in the closure of the town’s clam flats.

The survey is required by the federal Food and Drug Administration every 10 years, DMR Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said Monday. But he said reductions in staffing in the public health division forced his department to skip the survey.

The closure, along with most flats in York County, was originally announced in January, after the FDA notified Marine Resources that it was out of compliance, Etnier said. But it is only now affecting those who dig clams in Falmouth, because the season begins Nov. 15 and runs through April. Falmouth’s shortened season is due to the high boating traffic in the area during the summer months, he said.

When deciding what areas to target, the department performed the surveys needed to keep open the majority of clam flats used by commercial clammers, opting to close flats that support mostly recreational clamming, he said.

“We told them, ‘that’s reality,'” Etnier said. “Our focus was on keeping commercially viable areas open.”

If commercial clammers continued to dig from flats without a current shoreline survey, the FDA could have prevented their harvest from being shipped out of state, which would severely reduce their ability to earn a living, Etnier said.

A shoreline survey is a process that takes into account changes or additions as far as 500 feet away from the water and looks at anything that could affect the condition of the shoreline, including the health of nearby septic systems, changes in the number of residential units, addition of pavement and the presence of horse farms, he said.

With only eight recreational clamming licenses sold by the town last season and with commercial licenses not even available, according to Falmouth Town Clerk Ellen Planer, the ban will have minimal impact. Traditionally, recreational clamming licenses have been sold beginning the first working day after Labor Day, at a cost of $15 for residents and $30 for non-residents.

David Skillin, of Hartford Avenue in Falmouth, is a recreational clam digger who estimated he’s held a Falmouth license for the past 10 years. Digging clams is something he does “for the fun of it,” he said. He has generally gone about once or twice a month during the season and has often given at least a part of his harvest to senior citizens or to somebody who’s unable to dig their own clams.

“I’m disappointed because I enjoy doing it,” he said.

With the Legislature’s decision to provide more funding for Marine Resources, Etnier said the department was able to hire three new employees. He said he expects Falmouth’s clam flats will be surveyed sometime next spring or summer, opening the door for clamming once again in fall 2010.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.