New rules would let towns move shellfish from polluted waters

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BRUNSWICK — New state rules for municipal shellfish programs could help open denuded clam flats in intertidal communities struggling to overcome challenges to traditional harvesting. 

One of the changes proposed by the Department of Marine Resources would allow towns to apply for permission to move shellfish from areas closed due to poor water quality and replant them in clean harvesting areas. 

The amendment may give communities another option to help support wild shellfish harvesting, even though there are significant problems with implementing it, said Denis-Marc Nault, a DMR scientist working on the new regulation. 

“It sounds crazy, you’re digging the clam twice,” Nault said. “You’re doubling your effort, but it’s a tool if they are backed into a corner.” 

Nault was speaking following a sparsely attended public hearing on the rule Tuesday at the Town Office.

The Department held two other hearings this week, in Machias and Ellsworth. There is a Sept. 15 deadline for comments on the rule before DMR staff turn a draft over to the DMR advisory council. 

Under the proposal, towns that employ a qualified marine warden will be eligible to apply for a permit to transplant, or “relay” shellfish larger than seed from areas that are restricted to harvesting. 

Some harvesting areas are restricted to harvesting because of the presence of pollution from overboard sewage discharge or storm-water run-off. 

Although the areas may only be closed seasonally, they still provide a barrier to harvesters.

The new regulations would ease those restrictions, by allowing towns to get approval to move shellfish from restricted areas to open flats.

Towns will still not be allowed to transfer shellfish from areas where harvesting is strictly prohibited.

Harvesters would also have to wait at least 60 days before harvesting the transplants, but if timed right, they could still gather fresh shellfish during the summer months, when prices are the highest.

Federal guidelines allow relaying shellfish, but until now Maine hasn’t given towns the option. 

At a meeting of Harpswell’s Marine Resources Committee last week, committee members responded positively to the proposed rule.

The town has several possibly healthy clam flats that are closed off during the lucrative summer harvesting season, squeezing clammers into smaller areas with fewer clams. 

According to Darcie Couture, a consultant working with the committee, deteriorating water quality in other harvesting areas in Harpswell means the rule change could hold promise for the town and other communities, particularly if DMR decides to allow towns to reduce the time between moving the shellfish and re-harvesting them by testing for contaminants.

“Almost all the towns have some area that’s classified restricted,” Couture said. 

“It’s really encouraging that the department is even opening that discussion,” she added. “I wouldn’t have thought that was something they’d be ready for.”

Although it might provide some relief, Nault was quick to outline the problems communities could encounter. 

While relaying adults from heartier species, like quahogs, oysters or even scallops can be successful, soft-shell clams pose their own problems, Nault said. 

The mortality rate of adult clams skyrockets when they are transferred, which means towns could lose up to half of the animals moved, he said. 

That’s in addition of the time and energy harvesters need to spend to hand-harvest, transplant, and then harvest the clams again, he added. 

Even though it might not work to harvest adult clams, the tool could be used to move spawning clams to provide brood stock for other flats, Nault suggested. 

There is also some evidence that transferring clams that haven’t yet reached legal size and then allowing them to grow in a new area can be a successful tactic, he added. 

Considering all the complications involved, Nault said it is doubtful many communities will apply for relay permits, but the DMR would consider any applications on a case-by-case basis if the new rules are approved.

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