Out of steam?

Beloved bi­valves aren’t happy clams in Maine

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - BUSINESS - BY PA­TRICK WHIT­TLE

The soft-shell clams that are har­vested by hand and raked from the mud flats of Maine are be­com­ing less plen­ti­ful, and the down­ward trend jeop­ar­dizes one of New Eng­land’s old­est and most his­toric coastal in­dus­tries.

Maine is the soft-shell clam cap­i­tal of the coun­try. But clam­mers har­vested less than 1.5 mil­lion (0.68 mil­lion kilo­grams) pounds last year, the low­est to­tal in a quar­ter cen­tury - down from nearly 8 mil­lion pounds (3.6 mil­lion kilo­grams) at the in­dus­try’s height in the late 1970s.

The clam­ming in­dus­try was once sec­ond only to lob­sters in value among Maine fish­eries. And clams are steeped in Maine lore, play­ing a role in Robert McCloskey’s 1953 pic­ture book “One Morn­ing in Maine” and serv­ing as the fo­cal point of the Yar­mouth Clam Fes­ti­val that has wel­comed thou­sands of peo­ple to the coast for more than 50 years.

“Last year was one of the low­est to­tals since the ‘50s,” said Chad Cof­fin, a Freeport clam­mer who heads the Maine Clam­mers As­so­ci­a­tion. “There’s still ar­eas of the coast right now where there just isn’t a lot of clams.”

Clams in Maine face of a num­ber of threats, in­clud­ing an uptick in pre­da­tion from green crabs and milky rib­bon worms, and the in­creas­ing acid­i­fi­ca­tion of the ocean. Shell­fish tox­ins also some­times ne­ces­si­tate shell­fish har­vest­ing clo­sures, as they did in the state’s east­ern coast last year and south­ern coast this year.

De­spite all this, Maine soft­shell clam diggers are hope­ful for a stronger sum­mer this year. The clam­mers’ as­so­ci­a­tion says it’s hop­ing for a bounce-back year be­cause many clams seem to be reach­ing le­gal size, Cof­fin said.

But sta­bi­liz­ing the in­dus­try for the long term will mean adapt­ing to chang­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, said Brian Beal, a pro­fes­sor of marine ecol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Maine at Machias. The height­ened pre­da­tion from the crabs and worms has tracked in line with ris­ing coastal wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, which are pre­dicted to keep ris­ing, he said.

Beal said the preda­tors are the big­gest threat faced by the clams. One way for fish­er­men to cope with them is by em­ploy­ing strate­gies such as putting net­ting around ar­eas of mud flats where clams grow and plant­ing clam seed in pro­tected ar­eas, he said.

“If we don’t adapt, we’re go­ing to be dead in the wa­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, our en­vi­ron­ment has changed.” Brian Beal, Uni­ver­sity of Maine at Machias

“If we don’t adapt, we’re go­ing to be dead in the wa­ter,” Beal said. “Un­for­tu­nately, our en­vi­ron­ment has changed.”

The soft-shell clams are also known as “steam­ers” and they are of­ten fried, used in chow­der and, of course, steamed. They’re a fa­mil­iar sight in New Eng­land fish mar­kets and gro­cery stores, where they are fre­quently sold fresh.

The clams are also har­vested in smaller num­bers in other states, in­clud­ing Mas­sachusetts and New York. The catch has also dwin­dled in some of those states, such as Rhode Is­land, where clam­mers har­vested barely 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilo­grams) of soft­shell clams in 2015 af­ter fre­quently top­ping 100,000 pounds (45,359 kilo­grams) in the 2000s.

In Maine, state bi­ol­o­gists are work­ing on sur­veys and pro­tec­tion projects to try to pre­serve the clams, said Jeff Ni­chols, a spokesman for the state Depart­ment of Marine Re­sources. The num­ber of clam­mers in the state has held steadily be­tween 1,700 and 2,000 for most of the past ten years.

Cof­fin said he agrees with Beal that adap­ta­tion is key to re­viv­ing the in­dus­try.

“It’s not that there’s not clams,” he said. “It’s that they don’t sur­vive.”

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