Harpswell moving forward with clam disease study

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HARPSWELL — After being described as Maine’s epicenter of neoplasia, a disease that kills soft-shell clams, the town wants to find out if it still deserves the distinction.

The finding came after clams from 32 of Harpswell’s 54 coves were tested for the disease between 2011-2012. Now, the town wants to test those coves again to track any changes. 

Soft-shell clams are in decline statewide – total landings have been reduced to a quarter of what they were in 1977, according to data from the state Department of Marine Resources – but Harpswell has been hit particularly hard.

Harpswell’s clam flats used to support an industry of 50 full-time harvesters; now just 10 to 15 part-time harvesters work the flats.

Getting accurate information is not just important for seeing the extent of neoplasia, but for guiding future conservation efforts, Marine Resource Committee head David Wilson said.

Neoplasia can be transmitted from clam to clam, he said, so it’s important not to re-seed new areas with infected clams.

Darcie Couture, the town’s marine resource coordinator, said neoplasia is often described as “clam leukemia.”

“It acts up and can kill the clam during times of stress,” she said.

Possible stressors could include include predation, being flipped out of the mud by clammers or blood-wormers, or changing water temperatures.

Anecdotally, clam harvesters in Harpswell have been saying that clams are growing much better in rocky areas, and not mud, according to Wilson.

They believe these “hard areas” are sheltering the clams from natural predators as well as blood worm harvesters, who turn over mud flats repeatedly when gathering worms.

But a scientific analysis will help clammers get a more focused picture of what’s happening in the mud.

The town recently applied for a grant from the Maine Coastal Program to fund the study, Couture said, but that funding request was denied.

But, she said, with the help of Denis Nault, a biologist with the state’s Shellfish Management Program, she reached out to the lab that did the original neoplasia testing in 2011.

Scientist Anne Boettger, who runs the lab in Pennsylvania, agreed to do the tests again at no cost.

“All we need to do is gather the sample and ship it to her,” Couture said.

“I think part of the reason why she’s doing it is because she’s even interested in seeing what’s happened.”

Now, clammers like Wilson will go back out to those 32 coves and gather a new batch of samples.

Whether Harpswell remains the state’s hot spot for clam disease remains to be seen.

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

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A healthy soft-shell clam from a study on ocean acidication and shellfish decline done by Friends of Casco Bay.

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.