In Woolwich, shellfishermen aren’t just worried about green crabs decimating clam stocks, they are equally concerned about what they see as a push to privatize their industry.
In a meeting with the Woolwich selectmen on January 7 at the Woolwich Central School, shellfish committee members Tim LaRochelle and Dan Harrington outlined the history of Woolwich’s clam fishery and proposed a crab eradication/clam seeding pilot project for upper Montsweag Bay next spring. The project would be conducted jointly with the Wiscasset shellfish committee and require several volunteers.
With massive natural production, LaRochelle said an average clammer in Woolwich was able to harvest three to five bushels of clams per tide up until the mid-2000s. But Woolwich’s clam flats were closed in 2008 because of failing septic systems and most Woolwich shellfishermen were forced to find work elsewhere.
After two years of concerted effort to address pollution problems and conduct water testing, Woolwich’s flats were reopened. The small shellfish committee then undertook an extensive reseeding program, using natural clam spat gathered from West Bath.
But the once abundant clam flats are no longer productive, and clammers here, like many across the state, are now focusing on the prolific green crab, which preys on clams, as the likely culprit.
Although acknowledging that an attempt to reduce the number of green crabs by trapping in Freeport last summer seemed to have little effect on crab abundance, LaRochelle said Woolwich hopes a similar effort in an isolated upper reach of Montsweag Bay, north of the Chewonki Foundation, might be more successful.
“The bays are way too much for us to concentrate on with the funds and limited man hours we have,” LaRochelle said. “This is a narrow spot, where there is only one way in and only one main channel. I’d like to team up with Wiscasset to try to diminish them in this area.”
If successful in reducing green crab numbers, the beds would then be seeded with clams and specially-designed tents would be placed to exclude crabs and other predators.
LaRochelle said the issue is bigger than clams; green crabs are also destroying eelgrass beds and undermining salt marshes. LaRochelle described a recent trip out in the bay. “I noticed all the banking in front of the salt marsh was falling down,” LaRochelle said. “Then, I noticed, wow, the eelgrass bed is gone. They’ve wiped it out.”
The Woolwich pilot project will not be possible without volunteers, committee members said. LaRochelle and Harrington detailed plans to engage local students and work with Kennebec Estuary Land Trust and other citizen volunteers in the research/conservation project.
What the shellfishermen will do with all the trapped crabs is a question still to be answered. Crabs could be used in compost but presently there is no market for the species.
Harrington said he hopes the pilot project will help to address that broader goal. “We need a market to put continuous pressure on them, not just these short spurts by volunteers,” Harrington said. “Without an industry-based solution, we will never resolve this problem.”
LaRochelle said he is disturbed by another trend he perceives in the clam industry: a push to lease state waters for private clam aquaculture.
“The idea of leases is being brought up at every meeting I’ve been to, most of this is being pushed, that I’ve seen, by Dr. (Brian) Beal,” LaRochelle said, “Beal’s Downeast Institute sells seed that small towns can’t afford, but individuals will buy. There’s this feeling that small programs like us should get out of the way for leaseholders. I think we should be protecting wild Maine clammers.”
Currently, there are four licensed clammers in Woolwich and the municipal conservation plan limits the number of licenses to seven. Licenses provide the only source of funds for the local shellfish committee and money raised supports the town’s lone shellfish warden.
Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist Pete Thayer, who is the state’s shellfish guru for 20 Maine municipal shellfish programs, said DMR is working on revising green crab regulations to make it easier for eradication projects like the one Woolwich proposes to proceed. Those regulations will include a specific trap design for catching crabs, while excluding lobsters.
In the 1950s, green crabs boomed in Maine. While humans scrambled for an answer, scientists think it was ultimately colder water temperatures that reduced their abundance. Now, scientists think warm water temperatures may be an important factor in the current green crab population surge.
On Tuesday night, while people sat around a warm school room searching for answers to the green crab dilemma, outside Mother Nature appeared to be on their side. The temperature was 8 F and dropping.