SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council on Wednesday night increased the number of commercial shellfishing licenses to be issued this year, despite protests from Shellfish Conservation Commission leaders who say the town’s soft-shell clam resource is in peril.

Commission Chairman David Green says green crabs and milky ribbon worms are decimating the town’s soft-shell clam beds, and a commission dominated by commercial clammers has refused to heed warnings from him and other members.

Robert Willette, a commercial clammer who was vice chairman and past chairman of the commission, resigned in protest in December. Green, a commercial clammer who became chairman in November, says he will resign when the commission meets Tuesday.

“We’ve got a real bad case of the foxes watching the hen house,” Green said before Wednesday’s council meeting. “When is somebody going to err on the side of the resource?”

At a time when Green and others believe the town should be restricting access to the town’s embattled clam flats, the commission voted 4-3 in November to recommend adding six commercial licenses, increasing the total from 45 to 51. That would have added three resident licenses, one nonresident license and two bushel-limit licenses for people age 60 and older.

On Wednesday, the council unanimously agreed to add four commercial licenses – one resident, one nonresident and two over-60 bushel limit – as a compromise suggested by Marine Resource Officer Ian Anderson of the Scarborough Police Department.

Supporters of the six-license increase told the council they see plenty of seed clams in the flats now, signaling a bountiful harvest to be dug next summer. They said more than half of the commercial license holders are over age 50 and many don’t dig regularly, so they want to encourage younger people to join the industry.

“I don’t think it will have any adverse effects,” said Peter Angis, a commercial clammer and former commission member. “There are plenty of clams out there.”

CONCERN ABOUT OVERDIGGING

But Green and others said predatory crabs and worms will likely wipe out more than half of the seed clams well before they reach the 2-inch length allowed for harvest. And they warned that it’s difficult to reduce the number of licenses once they’ve been added.

“I don’t think over-digging and adding more licenses is the answer,” said Ed Blanchard, a commercial clammer who’s been digging since 1991.

Green pointed to the latest data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which show that the 225,929 pounds of clams harvested in Scarborough in 2015 was the smallest haul in nine years and 39 percent lower than the average annual haul of 372,663 pounds from 2007 to 2015. In 2007, the town’s commercial clammers dug 572,888 pounds.

Across Casco Bay, clam harvests declined from 2.7 million pounds in 2012 to 1 million pounds in 2015, according to the marine resources department.

Green said the 2016 harvest, which has yet to be tallied by DMR, was a bit better, with Scarborough clammers digging 3.5 bushels, or 175 pounds, on a good day, compared to 2 bushels or 100 pounds on a good day in 2015. But it still paled compared to 2007, when a clammer could dig 8 bushels or 400 pounds on a good day.

“(The DMR data) is about as scientific as you can get, but most of the commission members didn’t want to be bothered,” Green said before Wednesday’s meeting.

SEEKING CHANGES

In December, before anyone resigned, the seven-member commission was made up of six commercial clammers and a spouse: Green, Willette, Paul Erickson, Michael Lemelin, Terry Twomey, Timothy Downs and his wife, Erica Downs. Town ordinances don’t specify the commission’s makeup.

That’s something Green would like to change. He already has reached out to Councilor Bill Donovan, chairman of the council’s ordinance committee, in the hope that the shellfishing ordinances can be retooled to ensure fair and informed oversight of the town’s clam flats.

Several councilors noted the apparent dissent on the commission and expressed concern about conflicting information on the condition of the town’s clam flats, especially the lack of regular shellfish surveys.

“We have a lot to do as a council and a community to fix this problem,” Councilor Chris Caiazzo said.

Council Chairman Shawn Babine urged unhappy commission members to reconsider their resignations and help improve regulation of the town’s shellfishing industry.

Both Green and Willette said they were disappointed by the council’s compromise – they wanted no increase in licenses. They said they wouldn’t participate in the commission as long as it continues to operate as it does under current ordinances.

It’s a serious matter for Willette, 35, who digs clams year round to support his family.

“I’m just fed up,” Willette said outside the council meeting. “There’s not going to be a future in this industry if this keeps up.”