Last year Maine's harvest of soft-shell clams was one of the worst in many decades, down to around 7 million pounds. That's due in part to closures of polluted flats, and predation by the invasive green crab.
But harvesters and other observers say the fishery can bounce back — and new efforts to better protect the resource are emerging in more than a dozen coastal towns.
The Medomak River is Maine's most prolific softshell clam fishery, and Glen Melvin has been picking them from the mudflats here, off and on, for more than four decades. Steering a beat-up aluminum outboard downstream from Waldoboro, Melvin sports a multi-colored bandana and mirrored sunglasses.
The boat flies past cove after cove, which in recent years have been frequently shut down to clamming because of pollution by fecal coliform.
"Everything you see: closed, closed, closed, closed," says Melvin.
Melvin stops the boat and points to a line that he says marks the area upstream where clam flats once were either closed throughout the year or closed for a week or more every time there was runoff from a significant rainstorm.
He says he feared a time when the flats would be closed more than half the season. So in 2014 he teamed up with fellow harvesters, state and local officials, scientists and conservationists to answer a basic question: "Why is this polluted? What in this town is causing so much pollution that it's getting worse every year, and it could close the river?"
To find the answer the group tried a lot of different methods: they tested the water for E. coli bacteria "hot spots," then clambered upstream to try to find the source. They put smoke bombs in the town's sewers to look for leaks. They hired bacteria-sniffing dogs and deployed a new DNA test that could identify whether the E. coli came from humans, dogs or birds.
A big break came one day when Melvin was walking around a town boat ramp.
"I noticed there's dog-crap all over the landing,” he says. “And some of it you could kick in the river, two feet from the river. We got together and built this project and we're shoving dog crap down the river?"
Melvin and some of the town's 150 remaining harvesters led a successful referendum to ban dog-walking in such areas. Over the next several years the Medomak group identified and encouraged property owners to fix multiple pollution sources,from residential sewage pipes to a big seaweed processing plant.
Incrementally, the river got cleaner, and the state lifted restrictions on more areas. By this year, more than 360 acres of flats — maybe a third of the traditional growing area — has been reopened with no conditions.
"I think there's a model there for collectively confronting the many types of challenges that we're facing," says Bridie McGreavey, a fellow at the George G. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.
McGreavey is a leader in a multi-town, multi-stakeholder shellfish resilience project that has awarded grants to 14 coastal municipalities. The initiative, financed by the Broadreach Fund, aims to better document and protect clam and mussel populations in Maine — and do much the same for the harvester community, which has dropped from around 6000 two decades ago to just 1500 now.
"The situation is dire," McGreavey says.
She says the Gulf of Maine's warming waters have benefited its green crab population, a voracious predator of baby clams. Researchers say predation is the chief culprit in the severe dropoff in the clam harvest — from more than 37 million pounds in 1977, to less than 7 million in 2017.
"There's no denying that, and many of the issues that we're currently facing and the multiple signs of decline in the clam fishery are linked to climate change,” says McGreavey. “They are linked to other pressures as well, and poverty is one of those, lack of capacity in coastal towns is another."
Other pressures on the clam harvesters include injury from years of physical labor and opioid abuse related to those injuries. There are conflicts over licenses as municipalities limit their numbers, disputes over management practices and, always, unpredictable market prices to contend with.
Researchers meanwhile , struggle to identify pollution sources and improve the data on the actual health of clam stocks.
In the Damariscotta River, just down the coast from the Medomak, Jess Woodall and Cassandra Strauch are counting clams, in a carefully marked-off area of muck.
“Just so we know the boundaries of the area of where we're digging inside the plot,” says Woodall.
“It's basically a defined volume,” says Strauch.
Over the summer these interns at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center, joined by scientists and local harvesters, laid 700 grid plots along the river's banks to count clams and quahogs and build a baseline population database.
Because the historical data on clam populations are weak, the researchers are also interviewing dozens of local clammers to dredge up their deep knowledge of the resource, as well as the industry's local ebb and flow.
"They've all noticed a lot of different things, so right now we're gathering the data and analyzing that, but the biggest trend we've seen — a lot of them have noticed that the clams have been declining," says Woodall.
More than a dozen other shellfish projects are underway this year, from Yarmouth to Beals Island. In Georgetown, a group of harvesters is focusing on quahogs, which may be more resistant to warming water temperatures. In Harpswell and other towns, tests are underway to see whether tree-boughs placed in clam beds measurably help juveniles flourish,or whether it might be better to focus on protecting clams from predators with netting or other barriers.
"I have a lot of hope in looking at what people are doing here, and the rate at which they're figuring out these tailored solutions to really complex issues," says McGreavy.
Back in the Medomak River Project, clam-picker Glen Melvin says his group's achievements show that the resource may not be as imperiled as many believe.
"The Medomak right now is the cleanest it's been in 25 years, ever since they started labeling it and testing it and giving it a value,” says Melvin. “So we still have a little work to go, but we are so thrilled with the success."
Next up, Melvin and other volunteers are taking data from a recent effort to closely chart currents in the river — and using that to scope out the best spots for new clam beds.