Future of clams appears muddy

By Louis Bettcher | Aug 08, 2017
Photo by: Louis Bettcher Warden John Luellen, Steve Taylor, Denis Nault and John Eaton discussing threats to the clamming industry at the St. George Town Office on August 3.

St. George — A recent decline in clams along the St. George river has raised concerns for fisherman and marine researchers.


The St. George Conservation Commission discussed Aug. 3 the threat posed by natural predators, including green crabs, milky ribbon worms and moon snails.


Denis Nault, Program Director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources' Municipal Shellfish Program, said an influx of invasive creatures has decimated the population of clams in and around the St. George.


Green crabs, which were introduced from Europe more than 100 years ago, scurry easily across the mudflats where clams live, and one crab can eat up to 40 small clams per day. Nault said warming trends have allowed the crabs to survive winter seasons, which would ordinarily kill them off.


Native to the area are milky ribbon worms, which can grow up to three or four feet and have been increasing in population as well. The worms vary in color from white to shades of yellow and red, and research suggests they can target the scent of clams using chemo-receptors and may hunt in packs.


John Luellen is a Maine Marine Patrol Warden who monitors activity in Waldoboro, Friendship and Cushing. Luellen inspects the haul of harvesters in the area, ensuring that the clams they take are at least 2 inches in length -- a rule established by the state in 1935. Clams usually live up to three times the depth of their overall length, but even six inches below the surface a 2-inch clam can fall prey to crabs, worms or moon snails, which affix themselves to the clam, drill a small, circular hole in the shell and eat the creature inside.


Nault said only 10 percent of clams which are spawning will survive to adulthood. In addition to the threat of predators, environmental conditions and changes in weather can have an incredible impact on the future of a clam crop. Nault said a change in water acidification following a season of heavy rain can completely wipe-out a year's worth of growing clams in a particular area.


But the role of humans in the future of the clamming industry seems equally fragile. John Eaton, a founding member of the Tidewater Association, estimated that approximately one sixth of all clams harvested in Maine come from the St. George and Medomak rivers. However, of the 128 fishing licenses available in St. George, there is not one full-time clammer in town.


Sherwin Hoyt, who dug clams in St. George in the 1970s, said that clamming requires much lower capital than the lobster business, where fisherman often spend between $150,000 and $500,000 for a boat and equipment.


Despite the lower costs, Chad Coffin, a clammer from Freeport, said clamming is an aging industry, and many of the individuals who had spent years past as successful harvesters no longer have the physical ability to continue.


"There's a management aspect to this problem, and a huge decline in the number of harvesters and a decreasing amount of shoreline," said Coffin. This sentiment was echoed by David Hynd, a third-generation fisherman from Thomaston, who said that as the area has become bought-up and developed, access to the river and to the mudflats which used to exist is no longer available.


"My boys have been digging every day, and they've been seeing more and more green crabs on the river. My brother was tending an area that he had netted-off for small clams, and sturgeon had gotten under those nets and eaten everything," said Hynd. "The river is shaky. I've walked crisscross around areas of the river and there's nothing, it's just blank mud."


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