Climate Fishery Shutdown

A basket of clams is harvested at Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport on Sept. 2, 2016. In recent years, concerns about declining populations have brought about efforts to “replant” or “reseed” clam flats in Maine with baby clams to replenish the wild stock. Robert F. Bukaty / AP file photo

While last weekend might have felt like we were living in Florida with the unexpected late-summer blast of heat, Maine is certainly not Florida. And while the heat is fun for a short period, we are grateful not to have the persistent heat that the South has had to endure this summer. We are also grateful not to have the onslaught of tropical storms that places like Florida face. However, in a recent story about Hurricane Idalia, I learned an interesting connection between our two states: clams.

Along the Maine coast, we are fortunate to have a wild population of both hard- and soft-shell clams. They are dug by hand by licensed harvesters in each town, including Brunswick, which is one of the most productive towns along the coast. In recent years, though, concerns about declining populations have brought about efforts to “replant” or “reseed” our clam flats with baby clams to replenish the wild stock. This isn’t clam farming per se, but rather an effort to supplement natural populations.

Until recently, I didn’t realize that large-scale clam farms existed outside of Maine. In fact, Cedar Key, one of the places heavily impacted by Hurricane Idalia, is known as the “Clam Capital of the USA.” They grow both hard-shell clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) that are the same species that is harvested from Brunswick’s flats, and oysters. The story of one of the farms, Cedar Key Seafarms, is pretty interesting. It is a family-run business of members that have fished for any number of species over the years. The decline of wild oyster populations combined with a ban on gillnet fishing that was enacted in 1995, families like this one decided to give shellfish farming a try.

A state program to provide education on how to raise shellfish helped many in Florida to get started. Now, in addition to providing millions of dollars worth of clams, the industry also contributes to the local tourist economy by offering farm tours. Visitors get to see the whole process from the clams’ start as babies, or “seed,” in a hatchery and then their next stage in a nursery before they get put out in mesh bags to grow out over the next couple of years until they are big enough to harvest. This is faster than they grow in Maine due to the warmer water temperatures and faster than the growth rates in the two other major states that farm clams — Virginia and Washington. But following the hurricane, the future of the farms on Cedar Key is in question. The hope is that the farms will recover and keep the local economy going, as they employ a significant part of the population there.

In the meantime, it has made me more grateful for our wild populations here in Maine as well as for the technology that exists to spawn and reseed those populations as needed. Brunswick has used this technology to restore some areas that have not been productive in recent years, and we are seeing some success. This is important not only because clams provide economic benefit to us in Maine as well as to places like Cedar Key but also because they serve an important role in our marine ecosystem by filtering the water, making it cleaner and more productive for other organisms. I hope that Cedar Key recovers and that I someday have a chance to see their operations in action in an effort to better understand our town’s efforts closer to home.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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