Harpswell eyes ‘hard’ future as soft-shell clam stock plummets

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HARPSWELL — Clamming in the Mid-Coast is getting harder, in more ways than one.

Landings of soft-shell clams, consistently one of the state’s most valuable fisheries, have shrunk to just a quarter of what they were in the 1970s. Harvesters, shellfish managers, and scientists have attributed the drop to warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, predation by invasive green crabs and a disease called neoplasia.

“But for whatever reason,” Harpswell Marine Resource Coordinator Darcie Couture said Tuesday, quahogs – or hard-shell clams – “seem to be more prolific.”

Hard-shell clams have long played second fiddle to their softer-shelled cousins. In 2014, sales of quahogs brought in about $700,000, according to data from the state Department of Marine Resources, compared to the almost $20 million attributed to soft-shell clams.

“For the last 10-15 years, quahogs were just not on anyone’s radar, at least on the committee level,” Couture said.

But now, she said, the tide is changing.

Maine has historically been on the northern fringe of quahogs’ geographic range, according to the Maine Clammers Association. But with warming water temperatures, harvesters are finding more and more of them in the mud.

That can be an opportunity for a town like Harpswell, whose flats used to support an industry of 50 full-time harvesters, according to a report from Couture’s marine consulting firm, Resource Access International. Now, due to the loss of soft-shell clams, just 10-15 part-time harvesters are able to work the mud flats.

“Committees are trying to find solutions that will help keep their harvesters working,” she said. One way to do that, she added, is to “enhance and encourage these quahog sets.”

Brunswick last year began a long-term study to map and quantify the town’s quahog populations, in hopes of issuing more commercial harvesting licenses for hard-shell clams. That report is in its draft stages, according to Couture.

At the Nov. 24 meeting of the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee, committee members agreed to speak to DMR about obtaining a permit to gather and re-seed juvenile quahogs in town waters for the spring of 2016.

There is a prolific set of quahogs in the sub-tidal water of New Meadows Lake, which sits between Brunswick and West Bath. Because it is under state jurisdiction, towns can get permits through DMR to harvest young clams from the New Meadows population and re-seed them elsewhere.

If Harpswell’s permit is approved, the plan is to “introduce juvenile quahogs into the coves where we’re not seeing them now,” said committee chairman David Wilson. In theory, the new stock will set, and increase the overall numbers of quahogs in Harpswell.

DMR Shellfish Program Manager Denis Nault said  Tuesday that towns like Brunswick and Harpswell are in a “unique” situation.

“There are a handful of towns across the coast, mostly in southern Maine … that have quahogs, oysters and clams, all intermixed in there,” he said.

Those towns can manage a variety of species, he said, so they’re not “putting all their eggs in one basket.”

“Harpswell and Brunswick are being very progressive … they’ve seen some quahogs kick up that haven’t been seen in decades, and it makes sense for them to look at that aspect of a burgeoning industry,” he added.

Couture said Tuesday that said although Brunswick and Harpswell are both moving forward with more of a focus on quahogs, the town’s two strategies developed “independently.”

“That really tells you there’s something going on in this area,” she said. “They would not even be talking about quahogs … except that soft-shell clams are so affected by all of these forces that these communities are trying to find ways to adapt and continue to make their living on the waterfront”

Because DMR is doing a study on the viability of moving seed out of the population in New Meadows Lake, it is not issuing any transplant permits.

But, according to Nault, that survey and analysis should be finished this winter. If DMR rules that quahogs are safe to transport out of that body of water, Harpswell could apply for a permit in the spring.

At the end of the Nov. 24 meeting, Committee Chairman Wilson acknowledged that “Brunswick has done a lot of things” to get a robust quahog management program off the ground.

But with the soft-shell clams declining everywhere, “they’re still in the same boat we are,” he added.

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

Quahogs, or hard-shell clams, dug from Maquoit Bay in Brunswick in 2014.

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.