FREEPORT – Details, details – the Freeport Town Council needs them ASAP on a proposal for a town-supported shellfish coordinator whose main job it would be to protect the endangered soft-shell clam from green crabs. The Freeport Shellfish Conservation Commission hasn’t provided those details, and has precious little time in which to do so.

The Town Council has told Del Arris, commission chairman, that it needs time prior to its next meeting on June 17 – when it is scheduled to adopt a new budget – to review the request for a Freeport shellfish coordinator. The council has had in hand for some time a $90,000 proposal for a regional coordinator that would involve some nearby towns. But when the commission decided two months ago that a town-only approach would be quicker, it adjusted its request in name only.

Councilor Rich DeGrandpre told Arris and Sara Randall, the consultant hired by the Maine Clammers Association to draft the proposal, that all he has seen is the regional plan, called something else.

“It’s budget time,” DeGrandpre said during the June 3 council meeting. “We’ve been at this for a while.”

That leaves Arris scrambling to schedule an emergency meeting of the Shellfish Conservation Commission, which was not slated to convene until June 12. Arris said he is not sure if there is time, or the will, to rewrite Randall’s detailed plan.

Randall said during the June 3 meeting that the cost might be scaled back to around $20,000 should the duties be incorporated into the job of the town shellfish warden. Tom Kay holds that position, which is mainly focused on enforcement of municipal laws and decisions on closings of the clam flats.

DeGrandpre made note of the bumpy course the process has taken. Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association, who worked with Randall on the regional request, has said that Kay’s position is no longer needed, because enforcement is not the problem.

Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan said it was time to start fresh and ignore all that. She asked Randall what duties the shellfish warden might be able to take on.

“Maybe he doesn’t have the skills or the time, or maybe he’s retiring,” Egan said.

Randall responded that she would go through her regional proposal and check on Egan’s suggestions.

Clammers around the state are in panic mode, as green crabs are eating the soft-shell clams that are their livelihood, and an important part of the economy. According to the clammers association, clamming directly employs more than 1,500 people in the state.

The town of Freeport has not stood by while green crabs are doing their thing. Freeport commissioned a $100,000 study last year to help determine means of controlling the predators. University of Maine ecologist Brian Beal and his volunteers trapped crabs, tried to fence them and studied other means of protecting the resource, but came to no conclusions. Beal is back on the shores of the Harraseeket River and Casco Bay again this year, following up on his effort through a $200,000 University of Maine grant.

Connor O’Neil, a Freeport resident and senior majoring in environmental policy and minoring in economics at Colby College, is once again part of Beal’s team. O’Neil made a plea to the Town Council during the public comment period June 3. He said he has learned much regarding the problem of green crabs from clammers such as Coffin and Clint Goodenow.

“These fishermen possess localized working knowledge of the resources they depend on, and they have shown me how much the shellfish resource has declined in the past 35 years,” O’Neil said.”

O’Neil said he has researched and written about green crabs for Colby’s environmental studies department, and in his marine policy class this spring wrote a 26-page paper on the impacts and possible solutions to the green crab invasion.

“It is clear to me and to many others that we are very late in addressing the problem, seeing as this same problem destroyed Maine shellfish populations in the 1950s, but leadership from the town of Freeport has provided a beacon of hope for Maine’s native resources.”

O’Neil said he hauled 40 traps last summer, and landed more than 5,000 pounds of green crabs out of the Harraseeket, working with Beal and Randall, who was the local scientific coordinator.

“Weeding out the crabs and replenishing the populations of species at the base of the food chain, filter feeders like clams, for example, or a foundation species such as eel grass, is really the only way to restore the health of the overall marine ecosystem.”

O’Neil said that a shellfish program in Freeport could be “just what is needed” to incent the rest of the state to become involved at a higher level.

Freeport resident and Colby College senior Connor O’Neil speaks to the Town Council on June 3, urging continued support of an effort to control the green crab population and protection of the shellfish resource. 

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