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Brunswick senator's regulation of worm digging inches forward

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Brunswick senator's regulation of worm digging inches forward

AUGUSTA — Following a three-hour public hearing that drew hundreds of worm diggers and clam harvesters from up and down the Maine coast, a bill designed to prohibit the digging of blood worms in mudflats closed for conservation moved forward on Wednesday, albeit in a different form and with far fewer restrictions on worm digging.

If enacted, LD 1452, sponsored by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and supported by the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, would have allowed towns with shellfish ordinances to request that the Department of Marine Resources prohibit marine worm harvesting in mudflats also closed to clam harvesters for conservation by the town's committee.

An amended version of the bill proposed limiting the closure to 10 percent of digable flats, and only in areas in which communities had taken extensive conservation measures such as netting and traps to protect against invasive green crabs – which both factions on Wednesday agreed are industry-threatening predators of both worms and clams.

Clam harvesters maintain that worm diggers decimate the flats, digging the same area over and over again without concern about areas designated for conservation closures designed to restore shellfish populations.

"It's like reseeding your front lawn, then having someone come in with a pitchfork and turn it over again and again," said Mark Latti, chairman of the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee.

Proponents spoke extensively of the damage to flats by green crabs, and the need to take action to preserve the habitat.

But one after another, worm diggers told the committee that the bill would rob them of their livelihood and hand control of one industry, worming, to another, clamming. They argued that invasive green crabs are the true predator of clams and marine worms and that the decline of productive clam flats shouldn't "be put on the backs of the worm diggers."

While the majority of the Brunswick and Freeport legislative delegation spoke in support of the bill, Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich, told the committee that a previous study concluded that worm digging does not affect the population of juvenile clams.

"Unless the town can present some sort of proof (that worm digging does affect clamming), this could be a random exclusion of wormers," he said, calling for "a comprehensive approach based on science."

The bill first came forward during last year's legislative session. After a public hearing, Gerzofsky said he would place the bill on hold while the two groups ironed out a memorandum of understanding – by May 15 – or else refer the bill to committee.

The Brunswick Marine Resources Committee and worm diggers crafted a "gentleman's agreement" under which the committee would notify worm dealers of closures, and the dealers would post the closures for all worm diggers to see. That agreement worked, according to both sides, until August 2013, according to Dan Harrington of Harrington Bait in Woolwich.

Prior to Wednesday's hearing, Harrington said that the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee reopened an area of mudflats in August but failed to tell worm dealers.

"We considered it a broken agreement," he said. "They called it a hiccup or a mistake."

After that, wholesalers no longer posted maps and announcements of closures, and the agreement fell through.

After three hours of testimony Wednesday, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, who opposed the bill as written, offered a new version which the committee voted 9-1 to recommend for passage by the full Legislature.

Under the new language, which remains to be crafted, anyone destroying or molesting fencing or other devices placed by marine resources committees around areas seeded with clams, to help eradicate predators – including green crabs – will face a fine of $300-$1,500.

"This is going to be a very focused effort on predator control," he said.

Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, D-Rockland, was the only Marine Resources Committee member who opposed the rewritten bill. Dickinson said she was concerned about ceding control of the flats to municipalities and about a lack of enforcement oversight.

Following the vote, Harrington said the new language is "better than the alternative," but called it "the camel's nose sticking in the tent," and said he expected more restrictions to follow. He added that process has "driven a wedge even further between the clammers and wormers … it's disheartening."

"I think (the new language) is a step in the right direction," Brunswick Marine Resource Officer Dan Devereaux said. "In the next legislative session, we need to come back with a more comprehensive bill to look at the entirety of the issue."