HARPSWELL — For the last five years, the northeast side of Quahog Bay has been closed to shellfish harvesters because of raw sewage discharge suspected from recreation vessels that frequent the popular “cocktail cove.”
Now, thanks to the generosity of an area landowner, the Quahog Bay Conservation group is attempting to turn back the tide by offering a free, waterborne pump-out service for vessels anchored in the bay.
Strict federal regulations prohibit the harvest and sale of shellfish in areas that are contaminated by pollution from sewage or are at risk of contamination.
In the northeastern part of Quahog Bay, poor water quality ratings are attributed to the armada of recreational boaters who anchor for a night or weekend, said David Hunter, who heads Quahog Bay Conservation.
Though it is working on other projects, like setting out about 100 green crab traps and developing a trash clean-up program, the group’s centerpiece is a 24-foot skiff outfitted with a 300-gallon sewage tank and motorized suction pump.
At the helm of the pump-out boat during a tour last week, Hunter pointed out more than a dozen empty moorings in between the small islands dotting the bay’s water.
Seven monitoring stations set around the bay are already showing degraded water quality, even though the boating season has barely started, he said.
“It’s like Fourth of July out there every weekend,” Hunter said.
Hunter and the boat are offering free, on-call pump-outs. All a owner needs to do is call him and set up a time to service the boat’s tank.
So far, Hunter and assistant Peter Valente have pumped out two vessels and made contacts with more than 20 other boaters, explaining the issues facing Quahog Bay, and letting them know the service is available.
In 2009, the Maine Department of Marine Resources closed Quahog Bay to harvesting because of poor water quality. The bay’s east side was upgraded to a conditional closure in 2011, allowing harvesting during the off season, from October to late May.
The conservation group’s goal is to limit discharge from boats to the extent that the DMR again allows year-round harvesting.
Even though dumping closer than three miles from shore is illegal – all of Casco Bay is a discharge-free zone – state-wide enforcement is virtually non-existent, and distinguishing between boat owners who follow the rules and those who decide to open the valves underneath the hull and let their sludge flow out is impossible.
“I think most people want to do the right thing, but it just takes one to mess it up for everyone,” Hunter said.
A Harpswell native, Hunter runs the operation for the Scanlan family, who recently purchased Snow Island and set up Quahog Bay Conservation as a way to give back to the community.
The new group is one of only a few in the state offering mobile pump-out services. Friends of Casco Bay, the South Portland-based nonprofit, floats an on-call pump-out service that works on vessels as far away as Freeport.
Since it was established in 1995, that pump-out boat has kept 110,000 gallons of raw sewage from being dumped overboard, Associate Director Mary Cerullo said.
Although its program has been successful and helped educate boaters, it hasn’t provided a solution to the problem, she added.
“It’s one step at a time to clean up this stuff,” Cerullo said.
The presence of the Harpswell pump-out boat will be “hugely helpful” to the DMR if it considers reopening the area to harvesting, said Alison Sirois, a public health supervisor for the department.
In a scenario where there are mainly transient boats, with a readily available pump-out station, the department can determine that the risk of contamination is reduced to an acceptable level, Sirois said.
The fact that Great Island Boatyard, at the head of Quahog Bay, also provides a free pump-out service, gives reopening the flats an even better chance, she added.
The success of the pump-out programs elsewhere gives cause for hope that launching an aggressive clean-up effort might improve water quality to the point the state reconsiders reopening the flats in Quahog Bay.
“Everything is set up and ready,” Hunter said. “Now it’s up to the boaters to do the right thing.”
To schedule a pump-out or for more information contact Quahog Bay Conservation at 522-1105.
David Hunter demonstrates how the Quahog Bay Conservation pump-out boat works on a recent afternoon off Harpswell.