Harpswell floats aquaculture permit plan to protect clamflats

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HARPSWELL — Resident clammers are putting the final touches on an ambitious plan to protect almost 900 acres of intertidal mudflats through the broad application of municipal aquaculture permits.

The Marine Resources Committee intends to propose an ordinance amendment that would allow the town to set up an aquaculture license program and issue permits for 25 percent of the intertidal acreage open to harvesting. The permit areas, if approved by Town Meeting next March, would be reserved for the exclusive use of Harpswell clammers.

Through the lease, the town hopes to conserve some of the healthiest and most productive areas, allowing harvesters to renew a traditional resource, and sustain a way of life that is facing serious environmental challenges.

“We’re up against a wall right now,” committee Chairman David Wilson said. “We’ve got to take every measure we can, every step we can to come up with some answers.”

Casco Bay’s soft-shell clam industry has been brought nearly to its knees in recent years under the weight of threats including invasive predators, ocean acidification and the loss of critical marine habitat like eelgrass.

Even as some threats subside, new challenges emerge. While the number of invasive green crabs was down sharply this past season, Harpswell clammers are now concerned with the unusually strong presence of predatory milky ribbon worms.

“It’s hard,” clammer and committee member Justin Farmer said. “Compared to two years ago, we’re not getting the clams we were getting. It’s all kinds of things, it’s not just one thing.”

The permit plan is designed to help rebuild the clam population the town has lost in recent years, according to Darcie Couture, a marine scientist hired by the town to work on its shellfish policy.

“These would be areas where we really focus on husbandry, preserve the seed that’s there, add seed to areas that are barren, and really protect them so that when all those clams come into market size, the community can harvest them,” Couture said.

If approved, Harpswell’s commercial license holders would hold joint stewardship over the aquaculture zones.

State law allows towns and cities to issue aquaculture permits if they meet strict guidelines, like availability of the resource and non-interference with navigation, public use, wildlife habitat, and other fishing in the area.

Another requirement is that area reserved for aquaculture permits cannot exceed a quarter of the town’s usable intertidal acreage. According to Couture, that provision was included to protect residents  from outside interests who might try to buy up all available shoreline.

But Harpswell’s plan turns that requirement on its head.

“These commercial, public clammers are actually going to band together and partition off that 25 percent of the town, and the town supports them,” Couture said.

Although the exact boundaries of the proposed aquaculture zones haven’t been set, Couture and committee members have been working with harvesters for several months to select the most fruitful coves, and also those that will be easily identifiable as designated for aquaculture.

Within the zones, the committee is planning a robust seeding effort, and also to use the areas as closed test zones so the town can effectively try predator-control strategies and study issues like ocean acidification. Couture is hoping to receive more than $100,000 in federal grants to fund the projects.

“This is going to give us more areas to do exploratory projects that will hopefully give us some significant answers,” Wilson said.

By law, the proposed ordinance needs approval from Maine’s marine resources commissioner. There are also likely to be objections, particularly from marine worm harvesters, who have clashed with clammers in the past over restricting access to intertidal mudflats.

But with an industry in free-fall, Harpswell’s clammers feel they need to employ drastic measures to protect the resource that provides their livelihoods.

“These days,” committee member Connie Bernier said, “clammers have to walk more to dig less.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.