CHRIS WARNER’S proposal — helped along by Brian Beal from the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences and the Down East Institute for Applied Marine Research — is a clam farm for softshell clams, which are of particular interest to greedy green crabs.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

CHRIS WARNER’S proposal — helped along by Brian Beal from the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences and the Down East Institute for Applied Marine Research — is a clam farm for softshell clams, which are of particular interest to greedy green crabs.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

GEORGETOWN

Chris Warner has been involved with clamming and other fisheries most of his life. He wants his four children to be able to dig clams if they want to. And he’s been watching with a wary eye the rise of invasive predator species like the green crab, which has no known natural controls.

Warner, a Bath resident who’s served on the Georgetown Shellfish Commission, and Chad Campbell, who serves as chairman, say they have developed a method of farming clams in conserved beds that beats back the onslaught of the ravenous green crab.

Farmed shellfish is nothing new; the Mid-coast has been farming mussels and oysters by training them to attach to a rope for many years. But clams can’t do that, so their beds must be protected.

Warner’s proposal — helped along by Brian Beal from the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences and the Down East Institute for Applied Marine Research — is a clam farm for softshell clams, which are of particular interest to greedy green crabs.

Beal had to come up with the idea on his own, or with small grants from interested parties. There is no research money in Maine to investigate why clam harvests from Washington County to the Mid-coast have been falling dramatically.

While the clam harvest numbers, in pounds, have declined sharply, prices have increased. Clamming continues to be a lucrative enterprise, even as numbers of the molluscs appears to dwindle.

Without current statewide figures, individual towns are doing their own research.

Based on a survey done in Yarmouth, the clam population appears to have declined sharply, collaborating anecdotal reports from harvesters up and down the coast.

Denis Nault, biologist with the Department of Marine Resources, says the problem exists everywhere softshell clamming exists, probably owing to the green crab’s taste for clam spat — clams in the larval stage.

Other prey species such as sandworms aren’t faring as badly, while others, such as mussels, appear to be.

Some of the decline of clams may have to do with ocean acidification that can harm juveniles, or warmer ocean water temperatures. There may be diseases scientists are as yet unaware of. Sea levels are slowly rising, which may be eliminating some habitat.

The industry is vital to Maine. In the most recent shellfish survey including clams, available in 2001, the economic impact of the softshell clam industry was $21 million, including the value of the clams and all the “value added” impacts of the fisheries, from restaurants to packing. It is likely higher today.

Then, the number of shellfish licenses was 2,100, which included soft shell clams, quahogs, mussels, oysters, and other lesser species. It believed to be higher today, but an exact number won’t be known until another clamming survey is done of all the towns, since shellfish, except for large scale commercial licenses, requires a municipal licence.

One clammer may hold licenses for several towns. (Even commercial clammers also need local licenses.) Visitors can also purchase short-term licenses to be used during vacations. For example, Georgetown alone had recreational shellfish licenses totaling 72 residential, 6 nonresidential, 13 seven-day licenses, and 13 complementary licenses in 2013. Georgetown also had 16 residential, 2 nonresidential, and one student commercial licenses.

After looking at what Beal proposed, Warner went to the Shellfish Commission and asked for a lease to try to farm clams.

Townspeople didn’t like the idea of giving up land to the state — even for just the three years it would take to conduct a trial run. A solid majority of those who came to the public hearing opposed an experimental lease of unproductive clam flats on Bay Point, even when it wasn’t going to be state-operated. The clam flat, adjacent to the Bay Point Campground, is owned by the Holt family.

Ultimately, it was decided to ask the Shellfish Commission to declare the area a conservation area, with Warner chosen as steward.

Warner purchased baby clams for $750, and a set of 20-foot-by-20-foot nets.

The nets have floats allowing them to be lifted enough to provide growing clams with nutrients and keep them healthy. Green crabs can’t get through the nets, Warner said.

Warner goes out often to tend to the clam beds. He likened the beds to having a garden plot that he has to go out and weed and water.

Chad Campbell, too, works the beds.

“We trap green crabs that are near the beds,” Warner said. “We pick up debris. We check on the clams. That’s really all there is to it.”

He says his farm-raised clams are growing faster than their wild cousins.

Now two years into the project, Warner is getting close to seeing whether his diligence will pay off. So far, the clams seem healthy and there hasn’t been major predation.

However, most clammers don’t like this new approach to growing clams — even those in positions of authority in towns where clamming is a major part of their economy.

Warner hopes his harvest will change a few minds. Next year, after spawning season, which is in the spring and early summer, he’ll harvest. If everything went well, his $750 investment will yield more than $17,000, almost 23 times his original outlay.

“Yes, it took three years. And I have skin in the game. My own money is involved, and my time. But every clammer in Georgetown, or any other town, could do what I’m doing.”

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