A far-improved harvest convinces some that any clam-farming proposal is unnecessary and unfair.

The wild clam population in Freeport is undergoing an impressive recovery this year, and those proposing to lease town clam flats to individuals for clam farming pose a threat to the wild harvest industry, some clam harvesters now say.

Dale “Chopper” Sawyer, a member of the Freeport Shellfish Conservation Commission, and Doug McIntosh claim that landings per digger have improved dramatically this year. The commission has proposed that aquaculture would meet the challenge of a harvest that was well down in 2015, has been in decline for 30 years and is threatened by predators such as green crabs.

McIntosh, in an email to the Tri-Town Weekly, said that wild clam harvesters from Freeport and beyond are worried that the “aquaculture community” wants to manipulate local and state politics, and that “their appointed bureaucrats” want to force their competing industry onto the wild fishery.

“The natural clam resource in Freeport and much of Maine is in an incredible recovery stage,” McIntosh said. “Daily landings per digger have improved in Freeport by more than 100 percent from last year. Clam beds are being found and harvested in areas that have been nonproductive for more than a decade. The shellfish harvesters that depend on and trust nature are happy the way things are and don’t believe that natural predation is always a bad thing.”

John Dennison, owner of Freeport’s only remaining shellfish wholesaler, would not comment last Wednesday when asked the size of this year’s clam harvest.

But several Freeport clam harvesters from Freeport do business regularly with Cantrell’s Seafood of Topsham. Andy Cantrell, son of owner Scott Cantrell, said that it’s been “a really good year” for local clammers. The lack of rain and consequent conservation closures helped, he said.

Because of the abundance, the local market price for clams has declined. Cantrell said that he is paying clammers $120 per bushel, compared to $180 last year.

Sawyer has consistently argued against the clam farming proposal – now being studied by the town’s Ordinance Committee – in Shellfish Conservation Commission meetings.

In his email, McIntosh, who attends commission meetings regularly, railed against Doug Leland, commission chairman, and Brian Beal, a University of Maine at Machias environmental scientist studying the effects of clam predation in Freeport for a fourth year. Beal is a strong advocate of aquaculture.

“The clammers (are) opposed, have no representation and are considered nameless unwanted resistance,” McIntosh said. “We consider Doug Leland and Brian Beal as an extreme threat to our wild harvest industry. All other fisheries use conservation law to manage harvesting and protect stock.”

The commission has changed its original proposal, which must receive approval from the town, riparian landowners and from the Department of Marine Resources. Instead of aiming for one plot of mud flats near Recompence, by Wolfe’s Neck Farm – flats that must be subproductive – the commission decided this spring to propose to the Ordinance Committee a plan in which clammers negotiate their own clam-farm plots with landowners. The original proposal had been met with resistance on the part of some landowners at Recompence.

Leland, however, is not convinced by claims, which he says are anecdotal, that the softshell clam population in Freeport is resurgent.

“I could also go back and say that the latest harvest records, which are from 2015, are 50 percent down from the year before,” he said. “And the trend statewide in harvesting landings has been down since the 1970s.”

Leland added that Freeport was seventh or eighth in the state last year, in terms of the clam harvest, and usually is first or second.

“Data is reactionary, given trends over the last 30 years,” he said. “Aquaculture is a solution to long-term trends.”

Leland indicated that fears of an aquaculture takeover should be calmed by the fact that state law requires 75 percent of intertidal flats be public. And, he said, the Shellfish Conservation Commission is looking only for one to two acres of flats per harvester. He speculated that, due to the time and cost involved in setting up a clam farm, perhaps four to five Freeport clammers would be interested.

Beal did not return calls for comment by the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline.

Sawyer, who has been working Freeport’s mud flats for 30 years, said last week that the majority of the town’s harvesters are opposed to aquaculture. The practice would set a precedent, and lead to more takeover of public clamming areas, he said.

“It’s been very good digging this year,” Sawyer said. “We’re working on new sets of clams, on the outer edges of the mud, where the clams are underwater more, way offshore. Spots that are not surveyed. We haven’t had new beds of clams like this in 15 years.”

Sawyer said that clammers are hauling inthree to five bushels of clams daily right now.

“Mother Nature is amazing,” he said. “We’re just a small part of it.”

McIntosh noted that clams are at the bottom of the food chain, and humans are their top predators.

“Aquaculture supporters want to eliminate the entire food chain, including wild harvesters, for their own personal profit,” he said. “Maine’s natural resources belong to all Maine citizens. The towns with clam flats have the opportunity to manage their own resources. Freeport is the only town that is trying to force private ownership of 25 percent of its clamflats to aquaculture.”

McIntosh added that no one is reporting about the collapse of the green crab bloom and the resulting new clam beds.

But Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said he has no data yet to back up any claims of clam-harvest increases or green crab decreases. Nichols said that landings data typically are reported in March, so he cannot confirm any claims about the harvest.

The next meeting of the Shellfish Conservation Commission is at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 3,  at the Freeport Community Center. Election of officers is on the meeting agenda.

Clammers making their living on Freeport’s mud flats.

Andy Cantrell shows off some fresh clams at Cantrell’s Seafood in Topsham. Cantrell said that the local clam harvest has increased this year.

Dale “Chopper” Sawyer’s pickup truck is loaded with a daily catch on Freeport’s mud flats last week.

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