AUGUSTA — George Lemar’s nickname is Whispering George.
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.”
The first draft of the bill would have allowed towns to prohibit worm digging in conservation and seed clam areas. Clamming would have been allowed. The bill was amended recently to prohibit both.
The change doesn’t matter to Fred Johnson, a worm harvester from Steuben who said the bill would give towns too much control over intertidal flats, which are in the public domain.
George Lemar reiterated that point, raising his voice as lawmakers tried to cut off his remarks.
“Those flats belong to the people of Maine, not the towns, not you,” he said.
Supporters of the bill tried to downplay the division between the clammers and worm harvesters.
“L.D. 1452 will be played out today as one industry trying to gain exclusive fishing rights over another,” said Dan Devereaux, the marine resources officer for Brunswick. “In reality, there is no preference to one industry over the other in the amendment.”
CRAB INVASION COSTING JOBS
The state has allowed towns with certified shellfish management plans to issue soft-shell clamming licenses based on local shellfish inventories. Brunswick, which has some of Maine’s most productive clam flats, issued 68 licenses in 2011. Mark Latti, chairman of the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, told the legislative committee Wednesday that the town will issue only 43 licenses this year. The drop is a result of the green crab invasion, town officials said.
“If this was a small business closing … it would be front page news,” Latti said. “However, these jobs seem to fade away without much notice.”
Towns and the Maine Clammers Association have explored ways to combat green crabs, but the efforts have done little to stop the destruction.
Last year, Freeport approved a $65,000 study to determine whether trapping, fencing and netting techniques can stop crabs. The experiment was overseen by Beal, the professor at UMaine-Machias. Beal planned to install hundreds of feet of plastic fencing across the mouths of coves in Freeport.
Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher testified against the bill Wednesday morning, but said later that his department could support a proposal that imposes fines for removing protective fencing.
Under the amended bill that the committee sent to the full Legislature with its endorsement, towns that put protective fencing around a clam flat could impose fines of $300 to $1,500 for dismantling the fencing.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: