Clammers and bloodworm harvesters work in two industries that must share one sensitive habitat. It's not surprising that conflicts have arisen between the two, and it is clear that more research into the effects of their activities on each other and the environment is overdue.

This week we spoke with clammers and bloodworm harvesters. Statewide data shows clam landings have been hovering around 10 million pounds for the past decade, an extended trough in a rising and falling resource that peaked at nearly 40 million pounds in 1977.

St. George River clammers say that locally, landings are plummeting. When harvesters see sharp declines in their resource, it is easy to panic and point fingers at the other harvesters who share the mud, but the issue is complicated.

Our research suggests that the wormers may be getting a raw deal in being treated as scapegoats.

There are a number of rapid changes happening in the Gulf of Maine and any one of them could affect the clams. Could it have something to do with increasing water temperatures? (The Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99.9 percent of the earth’s oceans since 2004, rapidly changing its ecosystems). Declines in growth rates of phytoplankton, the clams' food source, ocean/mud acidification, and invasive predators all may be linked to clam disappearances.

The science about these factors and how they play out in the interconnected web of species survival is not yet certain. This is why the harvesters' perspectives are vital to the decisions being made about fishery management. They are out in the field — in this case, mud — daily, observing the effects in real time.

So far studies have found that worm harvesting does not negatively affect clams; it is affected far more by predators, including horseshoe crabs, clam-eating worms and green crabs that have a devastating effect on clam survival. Clammers and muncipalities managing shellfish resources should, at the very least, protect areas where clams have been seeded or settled naturally with nets or other gear and do the maintenance required to keep them from silting up.

Until then, their argument that something unique is happening in the St. George River will fall on deaf ears. Further studies are needed to see if high silt content is exacerbated by repetitive digging by worm harvesters and if this could be a factor in clam mortality.

While the science is being worked out, a more imminent problem is the lack of communication between the two industries. Though there is a history of distrust between clammers and wormers, attempts should be made to work out problems on the local level. Worm harvesters should be invited to Tideland Coalition meetings and the discussions should take their concerns into account.

An organization downeast, called Frenchman Bay Partners, approaches bay management by including representatives of all stakeholder groups. When there was a conflict between mussel harvesters and scientists trying to restore eelgrass in the same areas, they got together — over a catered meal — and watched a presentation on the benefits of eelgrass to juvenile mussels; then got to work marking up a map of Frenchman Bay. The mussel harvesters had insight into which areas were sandier and would work better for eelgrass planting, and which were prime mussel harvesting locations. The scientists moved some of their proposed restoration areas, and the mussel harvesters were able to agree on eelgrass conservation areas where they wouldn’t drag.

Perhaps achieving a gentlemen’s agreement between clammers and wormers seems impossible now. But organization within the two industries will help. Clammers have a history of working together for conservation. Their associations in the St. George River and elsewhere have worked in the past to deal with pollution sources in their watersheds in order to open flats that had been closed because of bacterial pollution. And through the relatively new Independent Maine Marine Wormers Association, the industry could organize to find ways to enhance the fishery, though there is still very little knowledge about the population biology of worms. If that group were not kept busy testifying against legislation meant to bar them from harvesting, they might be able to work together to set up experiments and find conservation measures that work, or set up their own voluntary standards for how many times to dig the same areas, or work with new harvesters on relations with shoreline property owners.

Both industries are important. Though clams have a higher value per pound, worms are primarily sold out of state and internationally, bringing outside money into Maine. Both sides must compromise in order to make progress. Clammers have to understand that wormers have a right to dig on the flats, and stop blaming them for clam declines. Worm harvesters must be willing to work with clammers and consider voluntarily limiting the number of times they dig the same areas.

Who knows, they might even be able to learn something from each other.