ELLSWORTH — How the state manages clammers and other wild species harvesters is changing to catch up with climate change concerns — and to reflect the growing number of species harvested and municipalities seeking to establish or continue local management.

Meredith White, Ph.D., will lead the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Nearshore Marine Resources Program. Department of Maine Resources photo.

“Climate change is affecting nearshore species all along the Maine coast,” Meredith White, lead scientist for the renamed program, told The American. White was named program lead Jan. 4 and will lead an expanded team of four scientists to address new and future challenges that climate change brings to coastal waters, in particular at the local level.

And the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has given the program a new name, Nearshore Marine Resources Program, and added two more marine resource scientists (formerly known as area biologists) along with White — more than doubling the program’s scientist staff — to match its expanded agenda and species its monitors. Formerly the Shellfish Management Program, the division remains under the DMR’s Public Health Bureau.

Research shows the Gulf of Maine warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and nearshore species are affected all along the Maine coast.

“Maine is somewhat unique (along with Massachusetts) in granting towns the right to manage their own intertidal shellfish resources,” White said. “This system is really well established in Maine.”

Local shellfish management means a town first has to develop a management plan and a municipal shellfish conservation ordinance that sets harvesting limits that meet state guidelines, as many coastal towns have done for decades. For towns without local management — White points to towns in the Rockland-Camden area — the DMR steps in.

“The issue is different municipalities vary greatly in financial resources they have to spend on shellfish management, as well as background of individuals on the (shellfish) committee and town have in shellfish management,” she said. “If a municipality feels they have that background and is all set, then that’s great. We just help them by processing paperwork. But if a municipality feels they need more guidance, more scientific background and help with on-the-ground management efforts, that’s where our program can really step in. And our marine resource scientists can provide that additional information.”

To provide the most current information to municipalities, the Nearshore Marine Resources Program will begin an intertidal monitoring program at about 10 sites throughout the state. The goal is to collect long-term data on trends in the ecosystem, including species abundance and diversity, invasive species, predation effects and recruitment of young animals.

Invasive green crabs continue to plague softshell clam harvesters in coastal waters and the warmer winters offer no break but instead has created a huge abundance of green crabs, which feed on settled clam seed, White said. “That has greatly reduced the softshell clam population along the Maine coast …That’s a big deal for softshell clams and harvesters.”

In addition, warmer coastal waters can lead to an increase in human and marine pathogens that bring disease among harvested species and illnesses in humans “and that could result in stricter regulations,” White noted. “If there’s a sudden die-off in a resource like softshell clams, we might go out and take samples and send them to pathologists to look for an outbreak of disease among that population.”

While the sites for intertidal monitoring are still to be finalized, White said it’s “extremely likely” that one will be located in Hancock County. And, she added, because the Rockland-Camden coastal area does not have local management plans, leaving that to the DMR, “it will be important for us to spread along the coast and have [that] data collection.”

Towns that have long monitored their intertidal zones have captured qualitative data “and that’s an important distinction,” White said. While those sites continue data collection, the state would like to standardize methods, with monthly quantitative data, so the data can be compared to other sites to extend the reach of the program, she said.

That monthly data collection will focus on “which species present at what density at each site” and the environmental variables, including temperature, salinity and pH balance. The focus will first be on macroscopic species but may add microscopic species, like phytoplankton, she said.

Phytoplankton is “a really critical part of the species chain,” White said, because the nutritional quality of phytoplankton can change within a species. “Different phytoplantkon have different nutritional qualities to shellfish, so if the species composition shifts, that can affect the quality of the food that the shellfish are getting.”

“Our program is in a really unique position for long-term monitoring because we have consistent funding from year to year, from the start,” she said. It takes a minimum of five years of data to start examining trends, she added, and the program has been provided the financial and staff resources to do this.

“We expect to see really significant seasonal variables,” White said. “We need multiple years of data to see long-term trends outside of that seasonable variability.”

White most recently was interim director of hatchery operations and director of research and development for Mook Sea Farm, a visiting assistant professor in Bowdoin College’s Department of Earth and Oceanographic Sciences and as postdoctoral research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in biological oceanography from Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.