March 10, 2010

Clam flats close again after rain follows red tide

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH —An intense red tide outbreak that closed much of Maine's clam flats is retreating, but just as the state began reopening some areas to diggers, heavy rains over the weekend led to a shellfishing ban for southern and midcoast Maine.

''You kind of get used to red tides, but these rain closures are really taking a (toll). This year, it's been a combination of both,'' said Tim Downs, a Scarborough digger.

Downs and others diggers learned Thursday that the state was reopening clam flats in Jones Creek, a branch of the Scarborough River near Pine Point. But before diggers had a chance to reach the flats during a low tide Friday, the state announced a flood closure stretching from New Hampshire to Port Clyde.

''It never got dug,'' said Dave Corbeau, Scarborough's marine resources officer. ''They only dug, I think, four days in the last five weeks. That's five weeks of prime-time digging.''

Clam diggers now hope to go back to work by the weekend, and they say this summer's above-normal rains and record-setting red tides have already made this the worst in a string of bad years for the industry.

Heavy rains trigger automatic closures because they can flood the coast with contaminated storm water and bacteria from overflowing sewers and septic tanks. Since June 1, Portland has received 16.4 inches of rain, more than 10 inches above normal.

Red tide, a seasonal bloom of toxic algae that can make shellfish dangerous to eat, triggers closures based on how much of the toxin is present. The red tide became so intense in recent weeks that it turned some parts of the ocean reddish brown and was blamed for killing fish and birds, effects rarely seen in Maine.

''We're just now starting to see (the red tide) pull out,'' said Darcie Couture, director of the Marine Biotoxin Monitoring Program for Maine's Department of Marine Resources. ''It's going to be a long, uphill battle because the scores were so high. (But) I'm hoping once the flood closure is lifted, we'll be able to get more places open.''

Couture said it's shaping up to be a horrible season for the industry.

''The red tide was bad enough, but with red tide and flood closures staggering almost perfectly all summer, these guys have not had any work at all,'' she said.

A 2005 University of Maine study found that a one-week statewide closure in August would result in an estimated loss of $1.2 million for clam diggers and mussel harvesters, and an economic loss of $2.9 million for Maine's economy.

The closures this summer also are affecting dealers, retailers and restaurants.

''A lot of the restaurants have taken it right off the menus,'' said Bill Bayley, owner of Bayley's Lobster Pound in Scarborough.

Bayley and others have been getting clams from eastern Maine, where flats are no longer contaminated and clam diggers have been allowed to go back to work, he said. But, even with concerns about red tide driving down demand, supplies have been tight.

Clams are selling for more than $4 per pound, at least $1 dollar more than usual for this time of year.

''It's the highest I've ever seen it,'' Bayley said.

Downs and other diggers were looking forward to getting top dollar when the flats in Jones Creek briefly reopened last week.

But after missing a good part of the peak summer digging season, Downs said he's stopped watching the price of clams go up.

''It's too depressing,'' he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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