JONESPORT, Maine — This small town on Washington County’s coast, along with dozens of other Down East coastal communities whose economies depend on fisheries, are being hit hard by the closure of those areas to shellfish harvesting.
“There are a lot of families out of work today with no income,” Rebecca Beal of Beals Lobster Co. said Friday morning. “We have six boats and a full wharf crew sitting idle.”
They are banned from harvesting mahogany clams.
Maine’s Department of Marine Resources on Thursday closed all of Cobscook Bay and much of the Down East coast due to historic levels of toxic red tide algae. Areas south of there already were closed.
Red tide algae occurs naturally in the waters off the coast of New England and elsewhere along the East Coast. But during large blooms, shellfish can accumulate potentially toxic levels of red tide while filter feeding. The resulting sickness, known as paralytic shellfish poisoning, can cause serious illness or death in humans who consume shellfish with toxic levels of red tide.
Lobsters and crabs are not affected by the ban, although health officials are warning people not to eat the tomalley, or liver, of the lobsters because it can store the toxin.
Clams and other shellfish purchased through dealers certified by DMR and restaurants remain safe to eat.
At Cushing in Knox County, Sherri Taylor of C&S Seafood said she has 129 harvesters unable to dig soft-shell clams.
“South of here, in Waldoboro, at least 180 diggers are out of work. This is a devastating season,” Taylor said.
At Machias Bay Seafood in Machias, 100 harvesters are out of work. At Ocean Harvest in Dennysville, Larry Matthews said 30 or 40 harvesters who supply him with clams are idle.
East of Washington County, David Jennings of Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the Bay of Fundy coast has been closed from Nova Scotia to the U.S. border for two weeks already.
“We’re taking all precautions,” Jennings said Friday.
A Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that the situation Down East has gone from bad to worse recently as red tide sweeps through eastern Maine at a record pace.
More alarming still, biologists fear that areas near Penobscot Bay that are major sources of shellfish could be facing closure in the coming weeks for the first time due to unprecedented levels of the potentially toxic algae.
“I think we still haven’t seen the worst of it yet,” Darcie Couture, director of DMR’s biotoxin monitoring program, told the BDN Thursday. “We are still going downhill.”
Large areas of Maine’s coastline were previously closed to shellfish harvesting due to polluted runoff from seemingly nonstop rains in recent weeks.
The economically depressed coast is already scrambling for every dollar it can make as its second largest income source — tourism — has been slammed by cloudy, rainy weather in June and early July.
The closure announcement is another financial blow.
Cecil Wood at CNW Seafood in Machiasport said there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
“It is devastating, not just for the dealers but for the harvesters and on down the line. They won’t be in the grocery store or the gas station. They won’t be in the restaurants. They won’t buy that new, needed refrigerator,” he said. “This is the third year in a row, and with the economy the way it is, this really hits us in the gut.”
“This is the Fourth of July holiday,” Barbara Hardy of D&D Seafood in Deer Isle commented Friday. “Everyone is going to be looking for their goodies.”
Hardy sits in the one bright spot along the coast where shellfish are still being harvested.
“We are still able to harvest,” she said. “I call us the meat in the sandwich.”
“We’re getting kind of frantic, though,” she said. Because the rest of the coast is closed, Hardy’s distributor is not sending a truck to Deer Isle to pick up only her catch. “It’s a rough spot. We’ve seen this before, but it seems worse right now.”
Hardy said that even though the Deer Isle area has not been closed due to red tide, her mussel fishermen have been able to harvest only five times in recent days due to flooding runoff.
She said she put a jar on her doorstep last night to measure the overnight rainfall. “It was about 1½ inches,” she said. “At 2 inches, we have to close down.” More than 2 inches of rain in 24 hours pours pollutants into the ocean waters through coastal runoff.
Erma Marius at Erma’s Seafood in Harrington said three little places in Harrington, Milbridge and Addison remain open for shellfish harvesting. “But I keep checking the DMR hot line throughout the day,” she said, expecting to see her area closed soon.
“It is really too bad. This is the season for the restaurants and the summer people to enjoy Maine’s shellfish,” Marius said.