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September 21, 2010
Article

New rules for booming quahog industry

by Muriel L. Hendrix

In April, 2009, the New Meadows Lake opened for clam harvesting for the first time since it was closed in 2005 due to pollution. It didn't take long for clammers to realize the lake was teeming with quahogs, so much so that Brunswick Marine Resources Warden Dan Devereaux says an individual clammer could be taking out as many as 5,000 clams a day. The numbers were "absolutely unheard of," says Denis Marc-Nault, state biologist and supervisor of Maine Department of Marine Resource's Shellfish Management Division. "You should not be seeing a huge density like it."

Word got around quickly, and clammers came from near and far. Because the lake is sub-tidal, it falls under state rather than town jurisdiction. Anyone with a commercial license could take advantage of the rich resource. On some days, there could be as many as 60 or 70 boats on the lake, with people using everything from a bull rake to homemade dredges to bring up the clams, which included smaller littlenecks, cherrystones and chowder quahogs.

With such massive harvesting, clammers began to worry about depleting the supply. With Devereaux, the Maine Clammers Association (MCA) approached the Department of Marine Resources to recommend that some rules be put in place to protect the resource.

Emergency regulations were enacted for April through June, however they were not in place during July and almost all of August. After a public hearing on July 6, the rules became permanent on August 23. The rules permit "hand digging with a clam hoe or bull rake, hand-raking, hand tonging or picking quahogs out of the mud by hand." Dredges, diving, and pumping are prohibited. The rules also prohibit night fishing and cutting through ice to fish.

Devereaux says the prohibition against cutting through ice, which some clammers object to, was enacted for two reasons: concern for the safety of winter recreational users on the lake-it is a favorite place for ice boating-and to keep clams from being left on the ice as harvesters fished for more. "Quahogs are temperature sensitive," he says, "and some of them would freeze. This becomes a public health concern."

Chad Coffin, president of MCA, says although association members support the regulations, they also believe the night prohibition should be lifted, at least on the hottest summer days. "When the temperature goes above 80 or 90 degrees, the extreme heat is detrimental to the harvested clams," he says. "To have a safe product, we would be better off fishing at night."

Coffin says the clammers' main concern is sustainability of the resource. So far, he says, it looks fine, even though after the summer glut, harvest has dropped off considerably. Marc-Nault, who has had extensive experience with quahogs in southern New England states before coming to Maine, believes that since the lake had been closed to harvesting for so long and all spat is trapped in the area because there is little outflow, the initial rapid thinning was necessary to allow room for juveniles and babies to grow. "You have to clear off the unhealthy numbers and the dead shell to make the habitat accessible for seed to set and get to a more stable population," he explains. "If the population wasn't thinned, there's the danger of a massive die off in warm temperatures due to a drop in dissolved oxygen." He is designing a way to assess the lake's quahog population to give a scientific basis for further management.

Not only has the extreme harvest been good for the lake's quahog population, Coffin notes that having an expanded resource and market for quahogs has benefited soft shell clam populations along the coast, particularly because harvesters turned to the quahogs in early spring. "It gave the juvenile soft shell clams a chance to grow in the critical spring months," he says, adding that when harvesters returned to the soft shells during tourist season, prices were up, making that fishery more lucrative than it would have been. According to Marc-Nault, quahog populations are increasing in bays in the Midcoast area, possibly, he believes, because of warmer water temperatures.

At the public hearing in July, several people whose property abuts the lake voiced concerns about noise levels and litter left by clammers. Coffin says MCA members try to teach people to be respectful and want to improve landowner relations. MCA members held a coastal cleanup around the lake in June and plan another in the near future. They've encouraged clammers to put crushed shells brought up by rakes on the access ramp. To protect water quality, they've tried to install a portable toilet at the ramp area, but a dispute about land ownership has put that project on hold.

The clammers, he adds, oppose an effort by the New Meadows Watershed Partnership to restore the tidal flow into the lake. They fear reopening the flow from the lake to the river will change the lake in ways that will reduce the lucrative quahog population. West Bath town officials have voted against the effort; they and Brunswick officials will have final say on approving the project.

With few exceptions, everyone who has benefited from the lake's re-opening is concerned about protecting the resource. They may not agree on exactly what is the best way, but they have the same end result in mind, to prevent over-harvesting and develop ways to ensure a sustainable population in the lake.

On September 17. Coffin said clammers had a good reason to appreciate that resource. "The soft shell market has been up until now," he said, "but the price really crashed yesterday. Today, people are rigging up to go for quahogs."

Muriel Hendrix is a freelance writer who lives in Bath.

click to enlargeAbden
Abden "Ace" Simmons of Waldoboro raking quahogs on the New Meadows Lake. Photo courtesy of the Maine Clammers Association

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