FREEPORT — The town is taking steps to address the decline of clam populations in Casco Bay, and hopes to discover answers that will restore the resource.

Earlier this month, the town’s Shellfish Commission selected a consultant to conduct a comprehensive survey of the town’s clam flats and develop a plan based on the results of their research.

The study will look at factors believed to be contributing to the decline of clams in the area and prescribe ways to mitigate those issues, said Darcie Couture, lead scientist and principal at Brunswick-based Resource Access International, which has been hired for the research.

“A lot towns in Casco Bay have noticed their clam flats have been declining,” she said. “We’re trying to get a handle on what is causing that specifically.”

The study will examine the effect of some of the major perceived culprits, such as the pervasive clam predators green crabs, which eat young clams, and try to effectively trap them to minimize their damage.

It will also try to determine the effectiveness of ocean acidification mitigation practices by testing methods like turning over sections of mud to see if it improves quality of sediment. In addition, researchers will place shell hash – essentially pulverized clam shells – along the shore, which has been shown to lower acidity and provide refuge for young clams, Couture said.

Couture and her colleagues will begin their research in late March and are expected to continue through November. They’ll be paid $40,000, half of which is a grant from the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The Town Council approved the other $20,000 last December.

Although some of the problems facing marine life in Casco Bay are more damaging than others, many can be linked to global climate change, Couture said. The warming climate has caused unprecedented increases in water temperatures, which means the extended cold periods of the past needed to keep the populations of predators like the green crab in check are becoming less and less prevalent.

Couture said that clams are also being eaten by sea birds and juvenile fish, but that those animals are much more difficult to contain and not as successful.

Freeport is virtually the only coordinated effort by a municipality to preserve the clam flats; last year the town dedicated $100,000 to the effort.

“The town of Freeport is taking a real concern in the local flats and is willing to put the resources forward and jump in and mitigate this problem,” Couture said. “I think they’re a leader and will end up being a model for other towns in Casco Bay.”

Town Planner Donna Larson said the focus of the research is to better understand the problems facing clammers so that they can create a plan of action to help bolster clam populations.

“We’re trying to preserve and expand our shellfish industry,” Larson said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Other studies have researched specific issues in the past focusing on things like water quality, Larson said, but none have taken this kind of comprehensive approach.

The shellfish industry in Casco Bay, which claims about 1,800 licensed clammers, is fragmented, according to area clammers, but efforts to coordinate and organize are starting to gain traction.

Regional clammers from Scarborough to Phippsburg will meet at 6 p.m., March 7, at 16 Station Ave., room 217, for the Casco Bay Marine Resource Summit. At the meeting, they will discuss the impact of climate change on clamming, legislation and what steps they should be taking to combat the problems facing their industry.

Another event, called the Fishermen’s Forum Clam Day, will host marine resource experts who will discuss a range of issues facing clammers. The event will be held from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, at the Samoset Resort in Rockland.

These efforts are needed, Couture said, noting that although Freeport taking may be taking a leading role, the issue won’t be remedied if they act alone.

“Ideally a regional, coordinated approach would be the best solution,” she said. “We’re hoping that if this study in Freeport has good results, we can convince other towns in Casco Bay that this is a good idea.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

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