LUBEC, Maine — Clam diggers in the area are fighting a devastating predator, moon snails, and are desperate for help.
Landings of soft-shell clams in the Cobscook Bay area have decreased 100 percent in the last two decades, Dr. Brian Beal of the University of Maine at Machias said Friday, and moon snails are to blame.
The explosion in the moon snail population seems to be concentrated Down East, a loss confirmed by more than a dozen clam diggers who attended a Lubec Shellfish Committee meeting Friday.
Beal said that last spring volunteers collected snails and collars — the sand-constructed egg cases of the snails — and in one area in Lubec, 3,273 collars were collected in one day. Each collar contains 1.3 million moon snail eggs.
“If you were a clam digger in Freeport right now, you could dig 5 bushels of clams at low tide,” Beal told more than a dozen diggers gathered in Lubec on Friday. But pickings are mighty slim in Cobscook, he said, an area where 5 million clams were dug not too many years ago.
“The saddest thing of all is that this is not a sardine plant. This is not a paper mill. When 100 jobs are lost in the clam industry in Lubec, nobody pays attention,” Beal said. “This is a human loss.”
Lubec has the largest clam flat area in the state and the smallest yield due to the predator moon snail.
“This is a community issue,” digger Julie Keene of Trescott said. “It’s about a heck of a lot more than just clams. We’ve been reduced to picking [periwinkles]. We’re starving. We’re losing our homes.”
Clammer Shawn Tinker said, “Yesterday, we had some clam diggers come up here from southern Maine. They couldn’t even get a bushel, and they’ll never come back again.”
Beal recently conducted scientific trials in the Haul Up bay area of Lubec. His findings revealed that the carnivorous moon snails are having a catastrophic effect on soft-shell clams.
Beal seeded the clam flats at Haul Up with 1.5 million juvenile clams in May 2008. When the clams were retrieved in November, 80 percent were dead.
“We expected death and destruction, and we found it. This is pathetic,” he said. In addition to finding the dead clams — each with the trademark circular hole bored into its shell by the moon snail — Beal found hundreds of the egg-filled collars.
Once a productive clam bed, the Haul Up is barren today. “There are no clams there now,” Beal said.
“If this is a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of Lubec, this is a very big deal. These snails are wreaking havoc and it is scary,” Beal said. Although green crabs, not a native species, also eat clams, Beal said the majority of damage is done by the snails.
How serious is the problem? One digger summed it up thus: “I used to be a clammer when you could still find clams.”
The diggers appealed for help to John P. Graham, Rep. Mike Michaud’s deputy chief of staff, particularly in light of the recent denial by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of a grant for Beal that not only would have decreased the moon snail population, but also would have put dozens of local people to work mitigating the losses.
Beal’s grant would have provided seasonal jobs for 40 shellfish restoration workers, five hatchery jobs and two field coordinators. His plan was to restore and enhance the clam flats.
With the loss of the grant, Beal and the clam diggers are resorting to removing any moon snails and collars on a voluntary basis.
Other options discussed included marketing the moon snails — they are a delicacy in Korea.
After the meeting, Graham said Michaud had sent him to hear the clam diggers’ concerns.
“Boy, I’m glad I’m here,” he told the clammers. “We have heard you loud and clear.” Graham said he immediately would begin looking into how Michaud could help Beal obtain restoration and mitigation grants.