BRUNSWICK, Maine — With a May 15 deadline to find a way to work together or face legislation that would force a solution, worm diggers and clam harvesters will consider Wednesday an informal agreement that representatives of both groups say they hope will allow both industries to thrive.
At the request of the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, proposed legislation that, if enacted, would allow any municipality in Maine to request that the Department of Marine Resources prohibit worm harvesting in an area closed by the town’s marine resource committee for conservation reasons, and would fine violators between $300 and — for repeat offenders — $1,000.
The Marine Resources Committee lobbied for the legislation because they say worm diggers — who can by law dig any flats in the state — kill seed clams when they dig flats that are closed for conservation to clam harvesters.
But worm diggers at an April 3 meeting of the Marine Resources Committee were adamant that legislation wasn’t required and wouldn’t work. They said no one had asked them to avoid the “high-density seed flats” and argued that a less formal agreement would solve the problem.
Gerzofsky placed the bill on hold pending an agreement between an ad hoc committee of Brunswick Marine Resources Committee members and worm dealers representing the industry.
The committee met twice in April and, at an April 24 meeting, worm dealers rejected a draft agreement, according to Devereaux.
That proposed agreement included a clause specifying that the dealers agree “that worm harvesting will not occur in conservation areas where predator netting is present.”
According to notes provided by Devereaux in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, the committee agreed that a formal written agreement “would not work.”
Phil Harrington of Harrington Bait in Woolwich, one of three representing the worm diggers on the ad hoc committee, said Tuesday, “A signed agreement is no different than putting it through the legislature.”
He added that he was reluctant to sign an agreement “because I don’t represent 800 worm diggers. Fifteen agreed to have me represent them, not 800.”
Instead, an informal agreement will be proposed to the Marine Resources Committee on Wednesday evening. The agreement — which Devereaux called “voluntary compliance” — would require dealers to post maps and notices of closures in their dealerships and dealers would ask the diggers who sell to them to stay off the closed flats, Harrington said Tuesday.
Brunswick currently proposes to close two areas identified as “high-density seed” areas: 4.5 acres at Thomas Point Beach and the about 7 acres at the “Bullpen,” or Woodward Cove.
Devereaux said Tuesday that he hopes the agreement for voluntary compliance will work, but he added, “I think if we went the legislative route, I think we would win.”
Harrington said he also hopes the agreement works, because if the legislation moves forward, “It would probably ruin the worm business.”
“There are no guarantees it’s going to work,” he said.
In an email to worm diggers, Harrington wrote, “There is no law, or rule that says you have to comply with any of this, in fact, if you wish, you can jump right in the middle of this seed bed and start digging tomorrow. But if you do, it means all of our negotiations have failed, and a bill will be presented to [the] Legislature that will give every town with a town ordinance the power to keep worm diggers off any area they choose to close, and the right to levy fines on anyone who goes into this area.
“Let’s try this co-operation with Brunswick,” he continued. “We have nothing to lose, and if we can avoid new laws, that is always a good thing.”
Gerzofsky’s bill has been placed on hold pending the outcome of the working group, and the senator said Wednesday that it was referred to the Marine Resources Committee earlier this week — although it has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.
He said he hasn’t heard about the proposed agreement, but said any acceptable agreement will include buy-in by both worm and clam harvesters, as well as a method to enforce the agreement and protect the flats.
“I have to see the agreement and see if they’re serious or not,” Gerzofsky said. “I’ll be talking to Mark Latti and Dan [Devereaux]. They asked me to put the bill in, and they’re going to have to be the ones to ask me to pull it.”