Digging in the mud at this time of year might not be your first choice of activities, but there are plenty of people who do this for a living right through the winter. Brunswick has over sixty licensed shellfish harvesters. Harvesters who can dig for both soft shell and hard shell clams under the same license. Soft shell clams are the smallish sized (legal size is two inches in length), sweet clams that people typically call “steamers” and are eaten dipped in butter or fried. They have thin white oval shells that you can find along the shore. Hard shell clams look quite different. They have thick shells that are often marked with lovely purple markings inside and are the kind that was once used for jewelry. Quahogs can be much larger with legal size measuring at least one inch across the hinge. They have different names depending on their size including chowder clams, which is how we consume most of them. Eating a large chowder clam steamed is like chewing on rubber bands.

Historically, most of what Brunswick’s harvesters have targeted are soft shell clams, but recently hard shell or quahog clams have been making up more of their catch. This is good for harvesters because they sell at a higher price. But, the question is why this shift is occurring and will it continue to go in this direction.

The upswing in quahog harvest is, in part, relative, since the soft shell population has had some recent declines. Because they have thinner shells, they are more susceptible to predators like green crabs than their tougher-shelled compatriots. In 2011, the invasion of crabs decimated the soft shell population to the point that the town had to cut nearly 15 licenses. The thinner shells of soft shell clams also

make them more strongly affected by increases in the acidity of ocean water that can erode shell material.

But, it appears that it is more than just relative. This year was a survey year for the town of Brunswick. Every two years, the town along with contractors and scientific personnel conducts surveys of its flats. In total, we have 1600 acres of intertidal area, so it takes a lot of time and manpower to conduct these surveys. But, they are what help the state and the town to understand how things change from year to year and also how many harvesters the resource can support. The findings this year show that the quahog numbers are continuing to go up.

This shift is not unique to Brunswick with towns like nearby Harspwell experiencing a similar trend. It’s not without some concerted effort to safeguard the quahog resource either. In 2012, Brunswick began to utilize quahog conservation measures. Over the years, this has included reseeding certain areas that appeared to be potential habitat and implementing a seasonal closure over the winter to let the quahogs stay in the mud and grow, undisturbed until spring. Part of the current health of the population is likely the result of these efforts.

Given that harvesters have become more dependent on the quahog population in recent years, there is increased interest in making sure that it stays healthy. One of the challenges with the reseeding efforts has been that it is hard to get seed that is the right size. It has been difficult to source this in the past and if you plant seed that is too small, it won’t survive. To that end, the town has applied for funding from several different sources to start growing its own quahog seed to the ideal size. This would mean a good supply to help repopulate areas that have good quahog habitat. Harpswell is seeking funding to grow quahog seed as well.

For now, we are happy to see the positive results of the recent survey and to have a resource that continues to provide tasty local seafood and support local jobs.

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