High levels of bacteria have closed Biddeford Pool to clam digging for an unprecedented three-month period, prompting officials to search for the source of the fecal contamination.

Clam diggers are losing a source of income and waiting for answers as state and local officials launch advance testing to try to determine what is causing the problem.

Marc Roy, one of the 10 commercial shellfish license holders in Biddeford, has been harvesting clams in Biddeford Pool for eight years. This year, he said he had to resort to construction work because he anticipates losing half of his income during the three-month closure.

“It definitely puts the hurting on us. You’re trying to make a living,” Roy said. “When you have to resort to other jobs to pay your mortgage and support your family, it’s definitely tough.”

Clammer Marc Roy has resorted to carpentry as a stopgap to earn money because the clam flats in Biddeford Pool have been closed since August and will be closed through October because of pollution. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Department of Marine Resources says water quality has been declining over the past few years in Biddeford Pool, resulting in the creation of a seasonal closure in August and September 2018. This

year, the closure was extended through October, the first time there has been a three-month closure in Biddeford Pool.

Biddeford Pool is a 90-acre tidal cove about 7 miles from the city’s downtown and near the mouth of the Saco River. The water level of the pool fluctuates, and it’s primarily mudflats at low tide. The area is surrounded by mostly seasonal homes and is near the University of New England’s main campus.

There currently are 10 commercial diggers and 182 recreational diggers licensed to harvest shellfish in Biddeford Pool, according to city records.

The softshell clam harvest in Biddeford Pool appears to have peaked in 2016 at 111,079 pounds, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources records. The 2016 clam harvest was worth $260,038 at the time, or about $278,000 when adjusted for inflation. Biddeford Pool’s landings dropped to 91,976 pounds in 2017. No data were available for 2018.

The city, Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection met recently to discuss the scope of testing that will be done in Biddeford Pool. The DEP will do genomic sampling to identify the bacteria source, according to a department spokesman.

Roby Fecteau, the city’s code enforcement officer, said the advanced testing could help determine if the fecal contamination comes from humans or animals. Last year, a gaggle of geese in Biddeford Pool contributed to fecal contamination in the area before the birds were removed.

Biddeford Pool just after low tide last Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It will give us a guide on what is actually happening,” Fecteau said.

The Department of Marine Resources, which oversees shellfish harvesting and closures, is currently conducting a shoreline survey of Biddeford Pool to identify failing septic systems within 500 feet of the shore and has been collecting data from streams that will be used to identify possible pollution sources, said department spokesman Jeff Nichols.

Fecteau said the city codes office will be involved with dye tests in septic systems if the tests determine there is fecal contamination from humans in Biddeford Pool.

Over the summer, the city’s Shellfish Conservation Commission used grant money to test water quality as part of its effort to determine the source of the contamination, said commission Chairman Peter Bouthillette. That testing is ongoing and will provide data beyond that collected through tests done by the DMR.

When a test done near the University of New England campus over the summer came back with high levels of E. coli, Fecteau said he met with college officials to ask them to do pressure tests to identify any problems.

Clammer Marc Roy says the three-month closure of Biddeford Pool to shellfish harvesting “definitely puts the hurting on us.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Early this month, a leak in a wet well and force main was discovered on a soccer field near the section of campus known locally as Resurrection City. Fecteau said the university shut down the well and disconnected the force main, which were being used to hold waste from one building.

“There is no evidence that it’s going down into the marsh area,” Fecteau said. “From the city’s standpoint, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They don’t want to pollute, and there’s no evidence they have.”

The university conducted additional testing near the campus center to look for leaks and is now reviewing options for a new septic system to take the place of the force main, Fecteau said.

Roy, the commercial digger, said he hopes the testing done by the state and the independent tests by the shellfish commission will identify the source of the contamination so closures will end.

“Hopefully we’ll get it figured out,” he said. “I don’t want to give up (clamming). I love my job.”


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