BRUNSWICK — Earlier this month, the Town Council authorized a change to the town’s Marine Resources Committee that removed eligibility requirements for a seat designated for a commercial harvester.

The seat had been empty for years, Harbormaster Dan Devereaux explained, and the committee had turned away qualified applicants, waiting for a harvester who never applied.

But the optics of the nine-person committee’s composition – which includes a single commercial harvester, and two open seats – belie the actual level of engagement the town has with its full-time working shellfish harvesters.

Devereaux said the problem engaging commercial harvesters at the municipal level has not prevented the town from getting their input.

“This is the interesting thing,” he said. “I think one of the reasons that the town of Brunswick hasn’t been able to get seats on the committee (for commercial harvesters) is because we have a very good turnout at almost every committee meeting of harvesters.”

His comments align with those studying the shellfishing community in Harpswell.

Kendra Jo Grindle, an associate with the Maine Fishermen’s Association, recently secured funding through Harpswell’s Holbrook Community Foundation to study the town’s fishing communities.

Though Harpswell’s committee is composed almost entirely of harvesters, she said it has struggled over the years with high rates of turnover; the composition has changed by at least three members since she started attending meetings six months ago.

But echoing Devereaux, Grindle said that doesn’t imply a lack of engagement by harvesters, who attend meetings in droves.

In some cases, the number of harvesters in attendance is more than double the sitting members of the committee, according to committee records.

This pattern – what Devereaux and Grindle described as difficulty in engaging a commitment, but not feedback, from harvesters – has triggered mixed levels of concern among town officials and clammers.

It also highlights the conflicts known to commercial harvesters, whose knowledge of local flats are critical to the committee, although they lack an interest in, or see obstacles to, making a commitment to volunteer.

Committee structures

Marine resources committees typically deal with shellfish because their licenses are managed by municipalities, not the state.

The committees’ responsibilities vary, but typically they set the number of licenses, and manage marine projects and education, such as in the emerging field of aquaculture.

Members spend a large portion of their time discussing conservation strategies – conversations that often produce varying opinions over how to effectively combat the effects of warming waters, ocean acidification, and rising predation from green crabs and milky ribbon worms.

In both Brunswick and Harpswell, the incentive for engaging on the committee is making a minimum level of attendance a condition for getting a license.

In Brunswick, a clammer needs 20 “points” to secure a license, which he or she can acquire through various levels of participation – re-seeding flats, predator control efforts – or attending a meeting, according to Committee Chairman Mark Latti, a recreational harvester who has been on the committee since 2002.

Similarly, Grindle said Harpswell clammers are also required to attend two meetings as a condition of their license.

Audience attendance has ensured the committees always have feedback from clammers.

“Harvesters can sit in the audience and provide the information to the committee and the committee takes that information and uses it,” Devereaux said.

That’s especially important in Brunswick, where “we haven’t had issues engaging residents, but engaging the fishermen,” he added.

And yet, Devereaux said Brunswick’s committee is intentionally diverse in order to gather insight “from all the factions of the community.”

It is composed of residents, recreational harvesters, a scientist, and one commercial harvester, and meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m.

Harpswell’s committee, on the other hand, is almost entirely composed of harvesters, but relies on input from town staff to run meetings.

Grindle said the meetings have become more organized and concise in recent years since the town hired a marine resources coordinator, Darcie Couture, a local scientist who is also a member of Brunswick’s committee.

“According to many that I spoke to, there’s a big difference from how the committee is run now (since Darcie came on),” Grindle said.

Grindle said many of the Harpswell harvesters reported feeling out of touch with town officials; many she’s spoken to look to Brunswick as a model for strong municipal-harvester relationships.

“For a lot of people in the (Harpswell) community, that’s what they’re lacking: that person to go to,” she said, referring to the role Devereaux plays in Brunswick.

Committee Chairman David Wilson did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss the committee’s organization.

Just a few days after Grindle presented the initial findings of her assessment at a March 27 meeting at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane proposed adding mandatory attendance to the harbormaster’s job description.

In an email, Eiane said she wasn’t at the March 27 meeting, but “a confluence of factors led to my suggestion.”

“Primarily, it was the timing of the current harbormaster’s retirement, which created an opportunity for re-evaluating the harbormaster position to make it even more effective in addressing harbor and waterfront issues, including those that relate to marine resources,” she wrote.

Commitment conflicts

That committees lack no shortage of feedback from commercial harvesters comforted officials in Brunswick and Harpswell.

Perhaps that is because most agreed that logistical and psychological barriers exist that prevent or discourage joining.

“Do you want to go to the meeting, or make $200?” Scott Moody asked rhetorically.

Moody, a wholesale buyer and former fisherman who serves on Harpswell’s committee, said attending a meeting when the tide is low can be a choice between volunteerism and his livelihood.

Kevin Johnson, the liaison to the Board of Selectmen, disagreed with Moody, arguing that harvesters just make for the mud after the meetings.

Latti said he’s only counted one or two months out of the year when low tide has inconveniently coincided with a meeting.

A more apparent conflict for commercial panelists, he said, is when the committee decides to set licenses.

“It’s a difficult position to put a harvester on the committee and have him vote to increase or decrease the number of licenses when they’re working directly with those people,” he said.

Devereaux, too, acknowledged the meetings can make demands on time and energy, especially in the summer.

“It just becomes cumbersome to them, (and) they like to be out on the water making money, obviously,” he said. “I think that level of engagement is hard to find on any level of government.”

That analysis resonates with Grindle’s observation about Harpswell’s high rate of turnover.

“For a structured committee, there has been a higher turnover than I usually see,” she said.

“Some harvesters have said (in interviews) that people get on the committee to get something passed, or in motion, and once it benefits them, they leave,” Grindle said, adding she has not witnessed that first-hand.

Harvesters and fishermen, Grindle said, can be entrepreneurial and industrious when it comes to a particular issue or a specific project.

She described a pattern of area fishermen spearheading the re-opening of a flat, or developing an aquaculture site because they saw a need or opportunity.

She observed less of an interest in municipal committees, which move at a slow monthly pace, and are technically advisory panels to the board of selectmen. Although Johnson said the board usually gives the committee what it asks for, it can’t pass policy on its own.

Grindle described “a feeling of ‘what’s it going to matter?'”

Moody has observed the same attitude, but said it isn’t consistent across the entire community.

At a time when coastal marine environments are facing climate-related obstacles, Moody suggested the source of political apathy and motivation might be the same: some harvesters feel compelled to adapt to new challenges, while others are more disillusioned.

While some he knows might prefer to work independently, Moody said he believes serving on the committee is an active step toward “preserv(ing) (a) way of life.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or [email protected]. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Soft-shell clams harvested last summer.