SCARBOROUGH — Under a sliver of a moon, dressed in hip waders and wearing headlamps or carrying flashlights, they made their way, carrying bats, hockey sticks, ski poles and homemade weapons in search of night-time predators.
Their mission: Murder green crabs.
About 20 fishermen participated in the June 28 conservation project along the banks of the Jones Creek and Nonesuch River, hoping to kill as many invasive green crabs as possible before the crustaceans prey upon the clams – and the fishermen’s livelihood.
The crabs came out at night, as usual, to feed on clams, but on June 28 they were met by the fishermen, who crushed them with their various weapons. Killing the crabs – which do not die easily even when punctured – made a “crunching” sound.
The men and women were there in part because Scarborough has an ordinance that requires fishermen holding a commercial shellfish license to complete 12 hours of conservation work annually to renew their licenses. Participating in the crab-kill project took three hours.
The town offers various licenses, but the residential commercial shellfish license allows holders to dig and take any number of shellfish from the Scarborough’s shores and flats. The state also requires a separate license.
David Green, chairman of the Shellfish Conservation Committee, said the crab hunt is an attempt to protect the clam flats, although he admitted it may not do much good.
Green said the crabbing nights don’t even make a dent in reducing the population, but “we feel like we have to do something.”
Trapping nets far greater numbers; Green said he can go out every third day and pull five pounds of crabs out of the river without even trying.
While not part of the Scarborough project, news reports in recent years have described attempts to introduce the green crabs for human consumption, but the invasive crab hasn’t caught on yet as a culinary delicacy.
Green is retired and digs about three times a week. When the price for clams increases, he digs more.
The conservation committee has two other evenings scheduled for crabbing projects, on Friday, July 14, at Ferry Beach at 9 p.m., and Thursday, Aug. 24, at Jones Creek at 8 p.m.
According to Green, green crabs live in caves and come out after dark and prey on the smaller seed clams, which are easy picking since they have a very soft shell. The crabs would have difficulty consuming a 1.5- to 2-inch clam, he said, which has a much harder shell.
Other conservation projects available to shellfish fisherman include pulling crab traps, which requires a boat, and surveying the clam flats.
Although the fishermen were only trying to save the seed clams from the green crab, another problem facing the health of clam flats is the milky ribbon worm, which, Green said, preys on harvest-size clams.
“Crabs get (the clams) for the first 1 1/2 years, and milky ribbon worm for the rest of their lives,” Green said. “It is very hard to raise marketable clams in this river.”
“Milky ribbon worms come through like a pack of wolves,” Green said. “They sting them, numb them, and then come back and eat them at their leisure.”
Green said Asian green crabs became a problem when they began breeding with a species of European crab that gained a foothold in the north – “so there is now a hybrid crab.”
Dwayne O’Roak, who also owns O’Roak Heating, estimateed he has had a commercial license for three or four years, but has dug clams recreationally throughout his life.
It took him eight years to get a Scarborough license, since the town only holds draws when licenses become available.
O’Roak said clam digging is a good way to supplement his income during the summer; he tries to go out digging each weekend, in addition to one or two times during the week if the tides allow.
“I just like to be out here. We see eagles out here. The other day I saw a squid,” he said, pulling out his phone to display a photo of the cephalopod.
O’Roak said even though local fishermen only have to complete 12 hours of conservation time, many fishermen are “always trying to do more,” to keep the clam flats healthy.
Sam Nygren, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Maine in Orono, has had his commercial license for about three years. He comes back to Scarborough each summer to dig for clams and participate in the clam conservation projects.
“I think it is important for the future of the resource.” Nygren said, “So why shouldn’t we try to reduce the threat of invasive species?”
David Green, left, and Dwayne O’Roak search for invasive green crabs during a shellfish conservation project June 28 in Scarborough, when fishermen killed the crabs in an attempt to save local clams. The two men are searching in the sand caves near Jones Creek.
An invasive green crab crawls along the clam flats near Jones Creek in Scarborough on June 28.