STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — According to the town’s harbor master, the harbor here is the best-kept secret in Waldo County.
Obviously, the cat — or, in this case, the clam — is out of the bag.
The harbor has become so popular so quickly that the Maine Department of Marine Resources last week issued an emergency order to close the harbor to shellfish harvesting due to increased boating activity there.
“Basically, it just kind of slipped through the cracks,” harbor master Dave Estes said about the emergency closures. “In the last eight years, this harbor has seen some major developments. And it was brought to someone’s attention.”
The shellfish closure came about not because of any health complaints, a DMR official said, but because the Environmental Protection Agency has a rule that any harbor where 10 or more boats are moored will be automatically closed.
While the harbor might have been less used by boaters a few years ago, Estes said, it is the case no more. He counted 80 boats in the water, with 165 paid mooring fees.
That means that the recreational clammers who dig there will have to find another spot, said Fran Pierce, a scientist with the DMR’s public health division.
“We have no way of knowing that those boats aren’t pumping their heads [toilets] directly overboard,” she said Monday. “I hadn’t realized there were so many moorings there until I was out there testing. Then it was just, ‘ Oh, my God.”’
While the numbers of boats caused some alarm among scientists, that foreboding has not been followed through by recent counts of elevated bacterial levels in the water, she said.
“It’s been improving,” Pierce said of the water quality in the harbor. “It’s looking pretty good right now.”
Ryan King, the chairman of the Stockton Springs Shellfish Committee, said that the community sells only recreational shellfish harvesting permits — and has sold 55 of them this year. That’s a big increase over the year before, when no permits were sold, he said Thursday.
While the permits allow people to dig for quahogs, clams, oysters, mussels and carnivorous whelks, most permit holders go clamming, he said. There are still sites in town where people are allowed to harvest shellfish — just not the harbor.
“What we’re concerned about is the health and safety and wellness of those that enjoy the activity of harvesting shellfish,” he said. “It’s a precious resource, and a very rare resource, to be able to do in Waldo County.”
After the harbor’s boat population jumped so quickly — after a development effort from places that include a nearby condominium complex — it was not a huge surprise to him that the DMR has closed the harbor.
“I’m kind of a realist and pragmatist,” King said. “With all the boats live-aboards, you just have to consider the general safety of everybody.”
According to Pierce, the closure may well be a seasonal one.
“When the boats aren’t there, we might be able to have it open,” she said.