Freeport shellfish group tweaking clam-farm strategy

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FREEPORT — Plans to arrange municipal aquaculture permits, in the face of declining soft-shell clam populations, have had a sharp adjustment since the Shellfish Conservation Commission agreed on an ordinance amendment last October.

The commission’s original proposed amendment would have allowed any holder of a Freeport commercial shellfish license to apply for a municipal aquaculture permit in a designated area with low clam yield, so that clammers using the public flats wouldn’t suffer.

The clammers could seed their designated areas with baby clams and maintain the habitat, likely by fencing off the area to protect the clams from predatory green crabs.

The permits would be for five years or less, and renewable for five-year terms. The total number of acres leased under the municipal aquaculture plan would not exceed one-quarter of the entire municipal intertidal zone that is open to the taking of shellfish.

The commission designated a 35-acre parcel near Recompence Campground.

The Town Council referred the proposal for further study to its Ordinance Committee, where it remains. But one important component of the plan has changed.

Instead of designating an area such as Recompence, which would require approval from several landowners with riparian rights, the Shellfish Conservation Commission now is pursuing a plan in which clammers would negotiate parcels on their own, with individual landowners.

“The Ordinance Committee is wrestling with resistance to the proposal, both from clammers who want the flats to remain public and some of the shorefront landowners,” said Doug Leland, shellfish commission chairman. “So the shellfish commission and the Ordinance Committee are looking at an alternative.

“Site location was the primary issue,” Leland said. “We’re still trying to find an area that’s sub-productive. Another approach would be to have a harvester approach a landowner and come to an agreement.”

T’he Ordinance Committee won’t meet until July 21, and even then, won’t have much discussion on the aquaculture plan, Chairwoman Sarah Tracy said.

“We are not going to pursue the issue right now until we learn more from the state Department of Marine Resource’s statutory interpretations – the legal authority of their leasings,” Tracy said.

Leland emphasized that the new proposed clam-farming sites remain in the conversation stage.

“The original proposal is the only one that the Town Council and the Ordinance Committee have,” he said. “The Ordinance Committee could change the language, or send it back to the shellfish commission. This commission wants to experiment with aquaculture. The commission is OK with the alternative approach.”

Leland said that the commission at first figured a singular location for a clam farm would be best, and settled on Recompence.

“But some people in that area were not happy with that,” he said. “We’re trying to find another area that’s sub-productive. If we have the harvester approach a landowner and come to an agreement, that’s kind of taking the opposite approach.”

Leland said that each harvester probably would farm one to two acres, with a limit of three. No clammers have made contacts with landowners yet, he said. The Shellfish Conservation Commission next meets on July 14 at the Freeport Community Center, at 6 p.m.

“Interested harvesters will lay low until there’s an agreement with the Ordinance Committee,” he said.

Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, is in his fourth year studying soft-shall clams – and their predators – in the Freeport clam flats, favors the new approach under consideration by the Shellfish Conservation Commission.

“That was something I had recommended to them in March,” Beal said. “The clammers who are familiar with the land can do it better. You can’t put all the eggs in one basket. I think you should spread your trees out if you want to see how your trees grow.”

Beal said that going from low to high production “is what you want to do in aquaculture.” But there are reasons some flats are low production in the first place, he said.

Warmer waters equate to more predation by invertebrates, such as green crabs and milky ribbon worms. There are no obstacles to the predators, such as fencing, along public clam flats.

“The public way of doing it has gotten us to this point,” Beal said. “There are lots of places in Freeport with no clams in the four years I have studied the flats. Those are places that are just prime for doing this sort of (aquaculture) and shouldn’t take anything away from these clammers. The predation rate just keeps on climbing and climbing and climbing.”

Beal added that conservation closures, in which the municipality closes off flats that are unproductive for a period of time, have ceased to be a useful resource management tool.

“They’re just a means to fallow the site,” he said. “(The clams) are getting nailed before they get to legal size. A town needs to do something to protect its juveniles.”

In order for a new ordinance to take effect, the municipality must request permission from the Department of Marine Resources, which studies the proposal.

“Once the DMR approves,” Beal said, “it gives its blessing to the town to do shellfish permitting.”

Beal said that aquaculture benefits both the harvester and the environment.

“Shellfish are filters of seawater,” he said. “A healthy shellfish population helps the ocean environment – ecosystems and the economy benefit. It’s a win-win. The bottom line here is people making a living.”

Jimmy Harriman, foreground, and Clint Goodenow harvest clams recently at Little River Cove in Freeport.