January 23

Maine clam diggers, worm harvesters square off over mud flats

Clam diggers say the bill is an effort to fight off a green crab invasion decimating clams, but worm diggers say it’s about ‘control of the mud.’

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — George Lemar’s nickname is Whispering George.

click image to enlarge

Adam Morse digs for clams on a flat along the Harraseeket River in Freeport in this Tuesday, March 27, 2007 file photo. Clam diggers say a new bill is an effort to fight off a green crab invasion decimating clams, but worm diggers say it’s about ‘control of the mud.’

Gregory Rec/2007 Staff File Photo

click image to enlarge

In this 1998 file photo, Don Jewett, of Alna, Maine, rinses a glob of bloodworms he dug on a mudflat.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Additional Photos Below

But Lemar, a 57-year marine worm harvester from Wiscasset, didn’t whisper on Wednesday.

“We don’t come up here and ask you guys for anything,” Lemar bellowed at the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. “All we ask is that you leave us alone!”

Lemar’s remarks were cut short. He was escorted out of the committee room as tempers flared over legislation that drew close to 100 clam diggers and worm diggers to the State House.

The bill, as originally proposed last year, would have allowed towns to prohibit digging in sections of intertidal mud flats to permit reseeding and growth of juvenile clams. Proponents said the bill was designed to combat an exploding population of invasive green crabs that’s decimating the $15.6 million soft-shell clam industry, Maine’s third-largest commercial fishery.

But Lemar and the dozens of other worm diggers who testified against the bill Wednesday suspected a sinister motive.

“This is about control over the mud,” said John Renwick, a worm digger from Birch Harbor who said the bill would let towns restrict the harvesting of not just clams, but worms, too. Renwick said that control is already in the hands of a few: clammers, some of whom have chased him off mud flats with threats of “bodily harm and even death.”

The Marine Resources Committee endorsed an amended version of the bill in a 12-1 vote Wednesday afternoon. That version, which apparently would have a more limited impact on wormers, would allow towns to fine anyone who dismantles fencing or netting used to protect clam flats from the predatory crabs.

Control of the mud is the central concern for worm diggers, who said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is an attempt to force them off the flats.

But for Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association, the proposal is about saving a shellfish population that he said could be off-limits to commercial harvesting in two years, an outcome that could put about 1,700 licensed clammers out of work.

“Nobody is trying to be critical of anybody else,” said Coffin, who urged lawmakers to move quickly.

MISTRUST BETWEEN TWO GROUPS

A study published last year by Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor at the University of Maine at Machias, said the European green crab’s resurgence on the Maine coast is reminiscent of a population boom in the 1950s that led to a 56.5 percent decline in the soft-shell clam harvest over a 10-year period.

Repeating history could devastate the soft-shell clam industry, which has thrived over the past 12 years. In 2000, the fishery was worth $9.5 million and clammers fetched 85 cents a pound. In 2012, the fishery was worth $15.6 million and harvesters earned $1.42 a pound.

Marine worms, known as bloodworms and used as fishing bait, were worth a total of $5 million and $11.35 per pound in 2012. The harvest was worth $1.6 million in 2000, a low year for a fishery that consistently grossed $5 million to $7 million over the past decade, according to state data.

Clams and worms are harvested on intertidal flats – muddy areas that are under water at high tide. Some clammers also work as wormers at times, and vice versa. But Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, a co-chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, said the two groups don’t always trust each other.

That was evident at Wednesday’s public hearing.

Supporters of the bill said it isn’t meant to target worm diggers. But worm diggers have been on the defensive since the bill was introduced, and several noted its title, “An Act To Allow Municipalities with Shellfish Conservation Ordinances To Request Permission To Prohibit Marine Worm Harvesting.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Adam Morse digs for clams on a flat along the Harraseeket River in Freeport in this Tuesday, March 27, 2007 file photo. Clam diggers say a new bill is an effort to fight off a green crab invasion decimating clams, but worm diggers say it’s about ‘control of the mud.’

Gregory Rec/2007 Staff File Photo

  


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