In response to what clammers are calling a “near-collapse” of their fishery on the St. George River estuary, five towns on the river, along with five towns near Brunswick, are pushing for state regulators to ban harvesting other species in clam conservation areas. The move targets wormers, who comb the same intertidal band along the coast with fewer regulations. Wormers say their digging is not to blame for clam declines green crabs and other predators are — and they complain that they are being vilified and shut out of the conversation.

Thomaston, South Thomaston, Warren, Cushing and St. George are joining with Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, Yarmouth and West Bath to form a "Tidelands Coalition" aimed at raising awareness about the importance of intertidal resources. (Thomaston has approved the $1,500 joining fee; other Knox County towns will discuss the expenditure at their town meetings.) The group, whose membership consists of municipal representatives, shellfish wardens and members of shellfish committees, has written a letter to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, expressing concern over “excessive disturbances” in the intertidal area and invoking a statutory option by which the commissioner may adopt rules that “limit the taking of a marine organism for the purpose of protecting another marine organism."

Maine clammers and wormers have a history of conflict, but it has been at a higher pitch the past few years as a spike in worm landings in the St. George River has brought more wormers to the mudflats there. In the past year there have been enough run-ins to recall the bad old days of lobster fishing: verbal fights on the flats, harassment complaints and tire-slashing.

According to Neil Pollis, shellfish warden for the towns on the St. George River estuary, it all started when a digger caught 1,400 worms in a single day.

“He went to one seller in Wiscasset, and of course everybody else came in, saw what he got and where he got 'em, and I mean the next day we were bombarded with 50 to 100 wormers; and it just kept going from there.”

Worm licenses are distributed without limit by the state. They are relatively cheap, $50, and with one, a wormer can harvest anywhere on the Maine coast. Since worms are used as bait, not for human consumption, there are no pollution-related closures. The only regulation is a ban on commercial harvesting (defined as taking more than 50 worms) on Sundays.

By contrast, clammers, whose fishery is regulated by municipalities, pay more than $300 for local licenses and $133 in state fees, and may only harvest in the municipality where they are licensed. (The five towns on the St. George River are a regional management area and local clammers can harvest anywhere within it.) The number of licenses is limited, to 130 in the St. George River area, and most municipalities require clammers to put in hours of conservation work. Many flats are closed for conservation, or because of bacterial pollution or the potential for such. In a “conditional area” that covers roughly the northern half of the St. George River estuary, there are cyclical closures in peak season whenever tides are higher than 11 feet, and nine-day closures whenever an inch of rain falls in a 24-hour period.

Clammers blame worm harvesting for the decline in clam landings over the past few years. One clammer said she made $5,000 less in 2015 than in 2014. (DMR said our request for landings data for the five towns would take a month to fulfill). Clammers’ frustration isn’t helped when they see wormers digging in areas closed to shellfish harvesting either for conservation or pollution.

“Now we’re in a dire situation in these five towns; the clamming situation is just — ” Pollis said.

"Horrendous." Butch Taylor, coalition member and chair of the Georges River Shellfish Committee, interrupted, finishing his sentence.

Pollis continued, “We’ve had a tremendous amount of seed set in the past couple of years, some of the best we’ve ever seen, but wherever the wormers have been the seed is gone — the wormers have killed it.”

Taylor said that to him the clam population is “on the verge of collapse,” and that wormers repeatedly digging the same areas “is killing the seed, it doesn’t have a chance to grow.”

Currently the only way clammers can stop worm harvesters from digging is by covering conservation areas with a net to protect the baby clams from predators. Disturbing a net carries a $300 to $1,000 fine. But Pollis said netting is not an option on the St. George River because the nets get covered in silt, suffocating the clams.

‘Perceived ownership of the mud’

“What we’d like to do is have it so if we put a conservation closure on a particular cove or any part of a cove, that in turn it keeps everybody, clammers and wormers, out of it,” said Taylor.

However, a DMR official said the commissioner cannot approve a clam conservation program that prohibits worming, but that a change to allow this would have to be done through the Legislature.

Dan Harrington of Wiscasset, who harvests both clams and worms and heads the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association, said this is a case of “perceived ownership of the mud.”

“[Municipalities] were given the privilege to manage the shellfish resource in their borders, and not anything else, and now they’re reaching for more,” he said.

The state controls worm licensing because, unlike “sedentary” clams, the worms “migrate and set into areas unpredictably, so the local management framework does not fit the resource,” according to a DMR report. (To clarify, worms don't burrow through the mud up and down the coast, they travel only a few meters in their lifetimes. But when they reproduce, once in a lifetime, their seed travels on the currents to different areas, according to Bates biologist William Ambrose.)

This is just the latest version of an argument that has been going on for decades.

“It is a carbon copy of what happened in the late '90s in Brunswick and the St. George River,” said Harrington. Bloodworms settled in the mudflats in upper Casco Bay near Brunswick and surrounding towns, and a few years later, in the St. George River. In the early 1990s, the DMR closed a third of Brunswick’s flats to worming, then, in 1997, DMR formed a Clam/Worm Conflict Resolution Working Group specifically to mediate issues in the St. George River. After 10 meetings, a three-zone, 30-day rolling closure was implemented, but this was repealed in less than a month because it was determined that the working group failed to adequately represent the worm industry. The issue resolved itself when bloodworms settled in other areas of the coast.

Stakeholder meetings convened in 2014 by DMR found that the conflict between clammers and wormers is focused on the midcoast; downeast clammers and wormers reported no significant conflict and commented that Midcoast issues should be dealt with locally. Clammers in the Searsport region reported a more symbiotic relationship.

Steve Tanguay, a Searsport clammer, said the mud in that area is "hard blue clay, extremely hard work to dig." Worm harvesting there helps both clams and clammers, because it breaks up the mud and moves air and nutrients through it.

The 1997 working group’s report also recommended resolving local conflicts locally, with face-to-face participation by the worm industry.

“DMR regulatory power should be the last resort; it will likely increase conflict rather than resolve it,” it reads. “Statewide legislation should be avoided.”

But some are still attempting to resolve the conflict through legislation. Harrington said the worm harvesters' association has been “battling legislation one after another,” sometimes only finding out about a new bill the day before its hearing. In one of those hearings a group of clammers walked out en masse while he was giving his testimony.

Harrington’s argument is one that clammers don’t want to hear: Wormers are not to blame for the decline of the clam resource, he said; the science proves it.

Two studies find other culprits

In the mid 1990s, the state commissioned a study of the effects of harvesting both species on clam survival. University of Maine at Machias marine biologist Brian Beal conducted the study at the flats in Maquoit Bay, on Brunswick’s shores. Several plots were seeded with juvenile clams, and others were naturally settled. Some plots were netted, and others were not. Some of the netted and unprotected plots were harvested by wormers, some by clammers, some once, and some twice, and some were not harvested at all.

Across the board, clams in the protected areas fared far better than unprotected areas. Beal reported that worm harvesting had a negligible impact on clam seed survival, clam harvesting had a slightly greater impact (because the rakes clammers use have longer tines than rakes used by wormers), but that predators had a major impact. Green crabs, rock crabs, horseshoe crabs, milky ribbon worms, dog whelks and moon snails are some of the predators that eat clams.

“Any effect due to clamming or worming on cultured clams or wild individuals of similar size was masked by clam losses exceeding 95 percent in the unprotected control plots. Intense predation is blamed for the high mortality among clams,” the abstract of the 2001 report on the study reads.

Though the study was conducted 20 years ago, it is still relevant today. The “herculean effort which moved 2,100 pounds of mud” is not likely to be replicated, Beal said by phone Feb. 11, but he stood by his findings and said that, if anything, they are more true now.

“In every experiment I’ve done over the last 30 years, leaving areas alone and leaving them with protection, when I come back after six to eight months, there are hardly any clams in the area I left alone and there are 70 to 80 percent [of the clams remaining] in areas that were protected.

“I'm going to stick to what I said [in that report],” he said. “If a town is going to close a flat to clamming and do nothing to protect it, predators are going to come in… They’re having a negative impact on the standing stock of clams.”

As for net silting, he said using styrofoam floats to buoy the nets can help, but the nets must be cleaned off periodically. He compared clam seeding to planting a garden. “You can’t plant a seed and walk away; it takes routine maintenance, it’s work,” he said. “Clammers aren’t used to that, they’re used to seeding and digging and selling, and that’s it.”

Another, earlier study by Ambrose, the Bates biologist, had similar results.

“My work showed that digging had a minimal impact on clams, but it was focused largely on the bigger individuals,” he wrote in an email in September of 2015 to Harrington. “For the uninformed, it looks like worm digging would have a large negative effect on the clams, but it doesn't, and certainly not compared to predation.”

In an email to The Courier-Gazette Feb. 16, Ambrose wrote, “In my opinion, the worm diggers are getting a bad rap and taking the blame for lots of factors that are causing a decline in clam abundances. It might be easier to blame diggers and restrict their digging than deal with more important issues, but it will do little to increase the abundance of clams.”

But it is hard to argue science with clammers who are in the mud every day and for whom it appears that worm harvesting is destroying their resource.

‘The proof is in the pudding, you can see it,” said a female clammer in the St. George River region who asked not to be identified. “As soon as the digging line ends, you can see clam holes, before it the clams are gone, just a bunch of dead shells.”

Turning over the mud does make clamming harder, because the clammers can no longer see the siphon holes that give away a clam’s location.

But there are also other factors that may be contributing to the clam decline. The environmental group Friends of Casco Bay has reported “disappearing clams” in mudflats that turn slightly acidic because of ocean acidification. St. Joseph’s College biologist Mark Green demonstrated juvenile clams dissolve in mud with a pH of 7.5 over a two- to three-day period. Studies by the Marine Environmental Health Lab in Blue Hill, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor have all found trends of mud increasing in acidity lower in the intertidal zone. Some have found more clams settling in areas higher in the intertidal zone.

Taylor dismissed acidification as a factor because “it is so sketchy that even now the higher-ups that are doing this are still trying to get all the numbers together to figure out what’s happening and why. They don't understand it.”

The 'worm digger problem'

Many of the comments by Tideland Coalition members showed their issues with worm harvesters extend into what they perceive as a difference in values, but what some wormers call territorialism on the part of the clammers.

Pollis said, “I’ve yet to find a wormer that lives on the coast of Maine; most of them live inland, I don’t know why. It’s hard to find a wormer that lives right on the coast. He added, “They aren’t from here and they don’t care.”

The reason wormers live inland, Harrington said, is that they make so much less than clammers and cannot afford property taxes on the coast.

Paul Mansir, a worm digger from Whitefield who has been harvesting in the St. George River and around the state for 30 years, said lately he’s been making only $100 per day, “which is pretty rough when you have to pay a third of that in taxes, then fuel, wear and tear on your vehicle, and insurance.” He said clammers “are making $200 a bushel and still crying.” On the best days he could make $200 to $300, he said.

Pollis also said wormers’ behavior is causing coastal property owners to close shoreline access to the flats.

“Clammers respect these areas, because they know how valuable shoreline access is. I’ve had guys down there repairing stairs; they pick up trash," he said. "But the wormers come in, they just don’t care.”

Mansir said there are some property owners who close access to clammers and not wormers, and vice-versa. But he said there are new crews from Augusta who are “kind of ignorant and disrespectful,” of shoreline property owners and that he’s seen them “digging up the lawn where they park, hootin’ and hollerin’, swearing, and throwing butts on the lawn.” He said a lot of shoreline access has been lost so that crews now need boats to get to the flats.

Behavior issues may have to do with the age of the harvesters. Harrington said the worm licensing system allows younger people to get into the industry, but the same people have clam harvesting licenses year after year. Wait-listed applicants are awarded licenses through lotteries when any are available. He said the Maine Clammers Association has raised concerns that the clamming workforce is getting older and less able to do the work.

Pollis also commented on the appearance of worm harvesters’ boats.

“Some of the local clam diggers have to get [to the Thomaston landing] way ahead of time just to get a parking spot,” he said. “We see them come down there, they come to the landing, clean their boat up, throwing trash around. You wouldn’t believe the crafts they come up with. You come down there and you see guys with truck caps on their boats.”

At an early Tidelands Coalition meeting held at Brunswick Town Hall in September, several worm harvesters were in attendance. Harrington said they walked out because “the first 35 to 40 minutes was a vilification rant against the worm industry and wormers in general.” He said at one point Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell, said during that meeting that forming the coalition was one step of many to deal with “the worm digger problem.”

“It’s an all-out vilification, they go from saying we’re hurting the clams to saying we’re unaesthetically pleasing, and they’re trying to turn the public against us,” he said.

But coalition members argue that they are not trying to pit one industry against the other.

“The coalition’s aim is to educate the public and municipalities about threats to tideland and be proactive to prevent those things from happening,” said Bill Hahn, South Thomaston selectman and coalition member, in a phone interview. “The goal is not to put people out of work; it is to let more people work.”

But Harrington said the coalition declined the marine resource commissioner’s offer to convene a meeting between the coalition and wormers.

“I try to promote better communication, but I’m ridiculed and criticized and [more] at every turn. It is all based on frustration,” he said. “Our level of frustration goes way beyond what comes out in the paper. Now the towns are getting together and keeping us out.”