MACHIAS, Maine — As nearly the entire Maine coast remains closed to shellfish harvesting because of red tide and flooding, a study by a University of Maine at Machias researcher suggests the economic toll could be enormous.
The first closures of areas to shellfish harvesting were posted in southern Maine in early June, and on Friday, the state Department of Marine Resources hot line was reporting that all closures for red tide and flooding — most of Maine’s coast — remained in effect.
Marine experts have said the closures could last for months, possibly wiping out the state’s shellfish season.
“The 2009 red tide has shattered records for intensity and geographic scope, leaving virtually the entirety of Maine’s shellfish beds, and the entire shellfish industry, shut down,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a press release Friday announcing the National Oceanic and Atmospherics Administration will dedicate $121,000 to research on the current outbreak.
A study by Kevin Athearn, associate professor of natural resource economics at the University of Maine at Machias, concluded in 2005 that a statewide, one-week August closure for soft-shell clams, mahogany quahogs and mussels would result in an estimated loss of $1.2 million in harvester sales and a total economic loss of $2.9 million for Maine’s economy.
“Maine’s shellfish industry is an export-oriented industry, meaning the majority of shellfish landed in Maine is sold out of state,” Athearn said Friday. “When shellfish harvesting is closed down, income is lost from Maine’s economy. Shellfish harvesters — clam diggers, mahogany quahog draggers, mussel harvesters — and others [such as] aquaculture operations for oysters and mussels, and Maine-based shellfish dealers lose sales and income.”
He said other area businesses such as boat repair, marine supplies, fuel dealers, grocery stores and restaurants suffer as a result of the lost income in coastal communities.
DMR Commissioner George Lapointe last week estimated that at least $10 million has been lost already from Maine’s coastal economy and said no real loss estimate will be available until winter.The total economic impact on Maine’s shellfish industry is estimated at $56 million, with the actual value of shellfish in 2006 at $22.4 million.Athearn’s look at the last massive red tide and flood closures in 2005 — when total closure days ranged from 44 to 135, depending on location — showed that harvesters then lost $6 million in direct income.Add to that the direct wholesale dealer loss of $1.8 million and losses to other sectors of $7 million, and the total loss in 2005 was $14.8 million.
Athearn’s study revealed that 82 percent of Maine’s soft-shell clams are sold live, 76 percent to out of state buyers. He estimated that 1,500 harvesters supply 100 dealers and processors who in turn supply thousands of restaurants and stores. All are affected by the closures.
The NOAA announcement came on the heels of Gov. John Baldacci’s plea to Maine’s congressional delegation to reallocate federal funds for additional research to help predict the bloom’s duration as well as what it could mean for outbreaks in future years.
In her announcement Friday, Snowe said the additional research voyages supported by the redirected funding will allow researchers to focus additional attention on some of Maine’s most productive beds where red tide cell counts may be declining.
Specifically, the funding will be used for an overflight to examine discolored water and conduct mapping cruises and sampling in the southern Gulf of Maine and adjacent waters. Mapping the distribution of the bloom will give Maine and New Hampshire advance warning in the event coastal shellfish toxicity were to increase. In addition, time series observations will indicate whether the bloom is expanding or contracting, and cruise data will improve the accuracy of predictions. The federal funding also will be used to conduct mapping cruises in Maine coastal waters.
Red tide algae, which occur naturally, can cause sickness or death in humans who consume clams, mussels or other shellfish that have accumulated dangerously high levels of the organisms.
Clams and other shellfish purchased through dealers certified by the Department of Marine Resources and restaurants remain safe to eat.
The DMR Red Tide Hotline may be reached at 800-232-4733 or online at www.maine.gov/dmr/rm/public_health/closures/shellfishhotline.htm.