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Business and Economy

Learning How to Farm Shellfish, as the Wild Ones Disappear

Courtesy: Maine Aquaculture Association
Sorting oysters at the Dodge Cove Oyster Farm along the Damariscotta River.

BRUNSWICK, Maine - For those who dig clams along the Maine coast, their fortunes literally come and go with the tide. And lots of things can happen out on the flats to disrupt their livelihoods. In the Midcoast area, a group of commercial fishermen, most of them clammers, has embarked on a seven-week program that could help them stay in the business, but find more stability.

Tim Johnson started working the Brunswick clam flats in 1982, when he was 18. He gave up digging last summer, he says, because it just got too depressing, as the clams were clearly disappearing.

"The clam resource in Brunswick is hitting an all-time low," Johnson says. "It's a combination of different factors. I mean, we've got a type of predator that we locally refer as a tapeworm, but it's a long, smooth worm that eats large adult clams."

And then there's the threat posed by the green crab population - an invasive predator that first appeared in Maine waters a few years ago - a indication of the effect climate change is having on the Gulf of Maine. These predators have had a devastating effect on much of the state's shellfish population.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Maine clammer Raymond Trombley is learning about aquaculture, as the state's wild clam population declines.

Ocean acidification is taking its toll as well, as the changing pH of the seawater eats away at clam and oyster shells.

Raymond Trombley has also witnessed the decline of the resource. "I've been clamming for 25 years, doing a little soft-shell clams and hard-shell clams."

Trombley says he's recently had to do more lobstering because of dwindling clam numbers, and is now turning to aquaculture. "Hopefully, this will make a change for us, we can make profit out of it better than what we did before, maybe help out the community."

Trombley and Johnson are among the 20 or so fishermen from Brunswick and Harpswell who showed up recently for the first of a series of training sessions.

"The idea is to expose these guys to shellfish aquaculture and see if it's something that they could transition to out of their wild fisheries, which are declining right now," says Darcie Couture, who helped put together the program. She's with Resource Access International, a marine science consultancy and one of 10 collaborating partners involved in the project, including non-profits, industry groups, municipalities and academic institutions.

By April, she says these students should have a good idea about how to go about setting up their own farms. According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, there are fewer than 60 shellfish farming lease sites in the entire state, which Couture says leaves considerable room for growth.

"And the nice thing about shellfish aquaculture is it has a very positive impact on the environment, as opposed to some others," she says. "There is some controversy about some other aquaculture - fin-fish aquaculture - but shellfish cleans the water, provides good habitat, produces spawn that can re-inhabit some of the areas around it. It's all good, all the way around."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Sebastian Belle of the Maine Aquaculture Association addresses a group of aspiring shellfish farmers.

"Aquaculture's a way to take a little more control of your life.  You're not quite as dependent on the ups and downs of populations, you're not quite as dependent on the vagaries of regulations," says Sebastian Belle.

Belle, the head of the Maine Aquaculture Association is addressing the students in "Fish Farming 101." The biggest strengths these students have, he says, is their understanding of the local ecosystem and their skills on the water.

Nevertheless Belle says, there are significant differences between being a commercial fisherman and being a fish farmer. "A fisherman is a hunter," he says, "a farmer is a shepherd, a herdsman.  And so the whole idea of how you manage a farm, how you manage a herd of animals, if you will, they will have to learn that."

He says they'll also have to learn some biology, as well as the business management skills needed to run a farm. Aquaculture operators must also learn how to win regulatory approval for their farms.

The organizers of the course hope the success of the program will give it the momentum to expand into other coastal communities in Maine and attract some grant funding.

One potential source of funds is the Marine Jobs Initiative, a $7 million bond approved by voters in November to spur economic development in the state's seafood economy.