Harpswell looks to limit shellfish dragging "mess"

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HARPSWELL — The Harpswell Marine Resources Committee is looking to limit shellfish dragging in the town’s intertidal zone.

At a Tuesday night committee meeting, committee members and fishermen described the practice as destructive, with the potential for eliminating the growth that has built up in the area’s long period of closure.

“It just makes a mess of the bottom,” said committee member Justin Farmer.

On Oct. 1, a large swath of previously closed area will be open to harvest for the first time in decades. All of that area will be open to dragging, the fishing practice of dragging large metal dredges across the seabed to harvest shellfish from the bottom.

 Area 18 encompasses upper Quahog Bay, and Hen and Ridley coves. It has been closed because of expired shoreline surveys as well as pollution closures, according to Darcie Couture, the town’s marine consultant.

Attendees of Tuesday night’s meeting expressed concern that intensive dragging could damage all that growth in the mud.

Brian Soper, a Harpswell oyster diver, said he sees first hand the effects of dragging when he’s down on the sea floor.

He worried draggers will harvest the surface of the seabed for oysters, and then “tow and tow and tow” until they get deep enough to harvest quahogs, a hard-shell clam, as well.

Soper said this happens in Harpswell’s subtidal areas, but also in the intertidal mudflats where clams, oysters, and quahogs can be harvested by hand, because there are no regulations prohibiting the practice.

“This is like, really bad, what’s going on,” he said.

Farmer agreed.

“Dragging rips out the quahogs, and everything else too,” he said.

Some studies in the Gulf of Maine have found that repeated dragging has a significant negative impact on marine life living on the sea floor it scours.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has never done a study on how dragging affects underwater habitat.

Soper warned that if something were not done to limit dragging in the area opening up, years of growth would be lost.

“Those oysters have had 25 years to get back to where they are,” he said. “If you could control the intertidal, you’d help this town immensely.”

Soper’s points resonated with the members of the marine resources committee in attendance.

Committee Chairman David Wilson said restrictions should be put in to keep Quahog Bay “viable.”

Couture said the town could request the DMR to regulate dragging for a specific area like Quahog Bay.

But, she said, the process could take up to a year, and the town, as well as some of its other committees, would need to get on board to create momentum.

There is some indication that selectmen would support such restrictions; the case of a shellfish dragger destroying an oyster bed off of a Harpswell resident’s property in the spring elicited concern from all three selectmen.

Couture mentioned that the town’s conservation commission and harbor and waterfront committee might also be interested in endorsing the idea.

The marine resources committee did not take any formal action Tuesday to send their recommendation to the town, as they did not have enough members present to make a quorum.

But Couture said the unified perspective among committee members would help get the ball rolling for the next meeting.

On Tuesday night, Soper lamented that some of the newly opened area would be torn up by dredges.

“There are all these ways to harvest this product,” he said. “Why do we have to do it this way?”

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

A Harpswell oyster dragger.

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.