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HARPSWELL — An apparently legal oyster kill in Quahog Bay is raising questions about shellfish management in town.
It also reveals the web of jurisdictional questions surrounding protection of the resource.
It all started at the Board of Selectmen meeting on April 30, when residents Paul Ciesielski and Susan Case-Ciesielski were seeking final town approval on an application to build a wharf on their property in the Mill Cove area of Quahog Bay.
In his comments to the selectmen, Paul Ciesielski raised an “issue (the board) should be aware of.”
According to a memo filed by the applicants in their wharf application, in the late fall of 2014, a fishing boat believed to be a scallop dragger swept the cove, leaving the bottom all “torn up.”
As a result, a bed of broken oyster shells and some live oysters were deposited near the Cielieski home.
In April, it was discovered that this oyster bed was re-establishing itself, right under the Ciesielski’s proposed wharf location.
An April 16 site visit by Maine Department of Environmental Protection project manager Audie Arbo confirmed the existence of the new oyster bed.
“We located the oyster bed, identified it, and took some pictures,” Arbo said in an interview.
According to Arbo, when dealing with coastal projects, the DEP always gets review from the state Department of Marine Resources.
According to DMR materials, “this is a mapped and known area for the two types of oysters, quahogs, and clams,” she said. The applicant agreed to move the wharf location “to minimize and avoid any impacts on the protected resource,” she added.
But just days before the Ciesielskis were to go before the Board of Selectmen to get approval on the change in the application, a fishing boat came back through the cove, sweeping across the oyster bed.
That dragging completely wiped out the growing oysters, said Paul Ciesielski. When people clammed the area the next day, no live oysters were found.
“(Dragging) is the most destructive way to harvest … that there is,” he said.
Dragging is a method of shellfish harvesting where a fishing boat drags chains and a metal dredge to pick up shellfish from the sea floor.
Selectmen were alarmed by the Ciesielski’s allegation, and Selectman Kevin Johnson told the applicants he would have Harbormaster Jim Hays look into what happened.
But in an interview on May 4, Hays said fishing the waters of Quahog Bay is a question of state jurisdiction, and not the town’s. He said he had passed the information from selectmen to the Department of Marine Resources.
Later that day, Marine Patrol Officer Christopher Hilton said he was initially “not alarmed” by the report.
Given the time of season and description of the boat, he believed the harvester was probably fishing for quahogs, the hard clam native to the East Coast.
“The cove at the time was open,” he said. “For the purpose of it right now, when they dragged through it, it was open.”
After 10 days Hilton confirmed that according to all the information available to DMR, the dragging had been permitted.
In an interview, Selectman Elinor Multer said she would first want to explore jurisdictional issues before taking any town action.
“My first question would be, would we have a right to (prevent this from happening again), or is that something entirely under control of the state,” she said.
“Being that it’s a DMR issue and they seem to be OK that it checked out fine, at first hand I’d be fine with that ruling myself,” selectmen Chairman Rick Daniel said. “But I’d want to look further.”
Selectman Kevin Johnson said that he was most surprised to hear that there was someone dragging for quahogs in that part of the bay at all.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard of anyone dragging for quahogs (in that area) … especially that close to shore,” he said.
He said he believes the disturbance caused by the dragging is probably an isolated incident, as usually quahog harvesters drag much further away from shore.
“In most cases it’s harmless, just someone scratching out a living … literally,” he said.
But he also said he’d want to look into the incident further.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane last week said the town could possibly send the issue to the Marine Resources Committee or Conservation Commission to consider.
On Wednesday, Eiane said the town will continue working with the Marine Patrol to figure out exactly if the dragging was a lawful activity.
“Then we’ll go from there,” she said.
The fishing boat some Harpswell residents believe destroyed a Quahog Bay oyster bed by dragging for scallops. State officials said the boat did nothing illegal, but town officials are concerned about the practice.