Hancock County shellfish conservation district weathers closures

Posted June 19, 2011, at 3:43 p.m.
Last modified June 19, 2011, at 7:10 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine —- As its first year of operation draws to a close, officials with a multitown shellfish conservation district in Hancock County hope that several closure areas within the district will lead to higher yields down the road.

Joe Porada, a shellfish harvester who spearheaded the district’s creation, said last week that despite the closures, the first year of operation of the district has been “excellent.”

“There is impatience, as there is with any kind of change,” Porada said. “The closures we have [were enacted] because there’s not really anything there.”

The closures, most of which are for six months, were adopted by the district in April.

Before the district was created, anyone in the state who had a license to harvest shellfish could dig for shellfish in the district’s member municipalities, which are Ellsworth, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan and Trenton. None of the towns had an active local shellfish ordinance, which meant that their local clam flats were open to anyone who had been licensed by Maine Department of Marine Resources. All the member towns have agreed to participate in the district, which is one of only two in the state, for at least another year. The other is in the St. George River area in the state’s midcoast.

By forming a district that is in accordance with rules set by DMR, the towns involved can reserve most of the licenses issued for harvesting shellfish in those towns to local residents.

Porada said the area around Frenchman Bay, where the towns are located, was heavily harvested because of red tide closures imposed by the state. Many parts of the coast were closed down to shellfish harvesting because of concerns about the toxin bloom, but Frenchman Bay was not, he said.

“We were seriously depleted in 2009,” Porada said. “People were coming from all over the place. We were left with very, very little.”

Red tide was less of an issue in 2010, but still diggers came from all over the state to dig on the shores of Frenchman Bay, Porada said. Word got around that the towns were forming an exclusive district that would severely restrict access by diggers from other towns, he said, so they came before the district went into effect on July 1.

The high amount of harvesting is the reason many areas in the district are now closed, according to Porada. The depleted flats need to recover and become productive again before they are reopened to digging.

All member towns except Ellsworth have areas that have been closed to shellfish harvesting by the district. A list of areas closed to harvesting by the district can be found online on the district’s website, www.lamoine-me.gov/Shellfish/Indexshellfish.htm. Areas throughout Maine closed by DMR for health reasons can be found at the DMR website, http://www.maine.gov/dmr/rm/public_health/closures/shellfishhotline.htm.

Porada said there likely will always be closed areas in the district, as areas get harvested and then have to be set aside so they can recover, much like rotating crops in land-based agriculture. But if the closures are implemented correctly, he said, the overall productivity of flats in the district should increase steadily over the next few years.

Charlie Brown, a harvester from Lamoine, said Sunday that despite the closures, he has been able to find clams to dig. He said 150 to 200 pounds is a decent harvest, but that he harvested 350 pounds on Saturday.

“They’re starting to show a little,” Brown said, adding that the wet weather has made digging tougher than normal. “That’s about as good as it gets.”

Brown said that, his big day aside, the conservation closures are needed. They will help ensure that licensed diggers can get big hauls more often.

“The clams need two or three years to come back,” Brown said. “It will happen. Nothing will happen overnight.”

According to Porada, the district has issued 81 commercial harvester licenses, of which 10 are reserved for diggers who live outside the district. He said all district license holders are required to put in a minimum of 12 hours of conservation time in the district in order to qualify for a license. Such time can include shore cleanups, seeding, conducting flat surveys or other administrative work, he said.

Porada said that some have suggested that the local program is unfair, because it prohibits diggers who only have state licenses from harvesting shellfish from the district. If you have a state license, Porada said in explaining the criticism, you should be able to dig anywhere in Maine.

But for Porada, the main issues are about resource management and local control. If the state could guarantee the same levels of enforcement and conservation effort that the district has put in place, he would be fine with leaving everything up to DMR. But the state doesn’t have the resources to seed and patrol the local clam flats to the same degree, he said.

“Unless the state can [adequately] manage the local clam flats, it’s going to remain boom and bust,” Porada said.