PORTLAND, Maine — Maine officials have launched a new program that aims to reopen some of the tens of thousands of acres of clam flats that are closed to harvesting because of poor water quality.
The Department of Marine Resources’ shellfish growing area team is taking a close look at flats that have been closed because of high bacterial levels. By working with town officials and focusing on specific areas, the team hopes to open some of them back up to harvesting and make them productive.
Clam digger Chad Coffin of Freeport calls the new unit a “shellfish SWAT team.” The effort will go a long way toward helping Maine’s clam industry and its nearly 1,800 licensed diggers, he said.
“To see them come up with the shellfish SWAT team is a breath of fresh air,” Coffin said. “Everyone’s excited about it.”
There were more than 140,000 acres of shellfish growing areas that were closed to harvesting in 2007, according to the DMR’s most recent statistics. An additional 36,000 acres were restricted or conditionally closed depending on weather conditions or seasons.
Besides soft-shell clams, the flats are also harvested for smaller amounts of mussels, quahog clams and oysters.
The idea behind the new program is to take a focused look at those closed areas — some of which have been shut down for years — and work with local officials to get some of them back open, said Linda Mercer, director of the department’s Bureau of Resource Management. They include the Harraseeket River in Freeport, parts of Maquoit Bay off Brunswick, the Medomak River in Waldoboro and num erous small coves and inlets.
Most of the targeted areas have been closed because of water quality issues caused by faulty septic systems, runoff and the like. But the water quality can be improved by conducting shoreland surveys, analyzing historical water quality data and identifying pollution sources with the help of local officials, Mercer said.
“The whole idea is to take a more in-depth look along the coast,” she said. “We plan for this to become an ongoing process.”
Maine is famous for its soft-shell clams that are turned into steamers and fried clams. Diggers last year harvested nearly 9.3 million pounds valued at $11.7 million, making clams Maine’s third most-valuable commercial fishery, excluding farmed salmon, behind lobster and shrimp.