HARPSWELL, Maine — Pat Scanlan was a little boy in 1966 when his uncle won a bidding war with the Agway corporation and bought Snow Island in Quahog Bay.
Two years later, he spent the first of many summers on the island, digging for clams in the mudflats and later, during the 1970s and 1980s, helping to put docks in early in the season and take them out when it grew cold.
But in 2011, when Scanlan bought the island to get it back in the family — it had been sold to Dodge Morgan during the years Scanlan served in the military and became an electrical engineer — he discovered his own children couldn’t take their pails onto the flats to dig for lunch.
“Quahog Bay had been closed to shellfish harvesting for more than a decade,” Scanlan said recently in the offices of the Quahog Bay Conservancy. The Maine Department of Marine Resources had closed the nearly 1,000-acre bay due to poor water quality.
Hunting a cause
Determined that his children, Martin, now 13, and Stella, now 11, would enjoy the same Robert McCloskey-esque summers he did, Scanlan and his wife, Mary Scanlan, established the conservancy in 2013 to re-open the bay and ensure it remains that way.
“I decided to really grab the bull by the horns,” he said. “I said, ‘Tell me exactly what’s causing the problem.’ They said overboard discharge — noncompliant septic systems and overboard discharge from transient boaters in the bay.’ I said, ‘The quickest way [to address that] is to get a pump-out boat.’”
In fact, Scanlan discovered that two septic systems on Snow Island were non-compliant, and the conservancy fixed that system and other non-compliant systems on the bay. He is working with two other landowners to ensure their systems comply.
Scanlan turned to David Hunter of Harpswell, operation manager at Quahog Bay Conservancy and manager of Snow Island, to run the pump-out boat. Today, Hunter and other staff members operate the free, on-call boat, collect trash around the bay, and test water samples from nine sites weekly for sewage contamination, then submit the results to the state.
Based on their efforts, Quahog Bay reopened to shellfish harvesting in 2014 — but softshell clams are long gone, in part due to predators including the milky ribbon worm and invasive green crab. To address the latter, Hunter and his crew also fish 100 traps, collecting about 10,000 pounds of the scurrying creatures two summers ago and 5,000 pounds last year, Hunter said.
“We don’t know if it’s doing any good, but it’s something — that has to be better than nothing,” Scanlan said.
Scanlan hopes one day to re-introduce clams back into the bay.
“Now it will be protected forever,” he said.
Retired from IBM and Lockheed-Martin, Scanlan lives with his family full time in Colorado. But when Scanlan bought the island, the family began visiting for the months of July and August. Scanlan returns in October for a bit, and then in December to dive for scallops and hunt ducks on the nearby Ledges.
But in July, his prey is trash. On a recent Thursday, Hunter left the dock at Dyer’s Cove with Alec Bollinger and Pete Valente to collect trash.They’ve collected 150 cubic yards of trash, he said — car tires, batteries, a five-gallon jug of oil full of holes, and balloons — many, many balloons.
“We’ve been doing a pretty good job keeping ahead of it” this year,” Valente said.
Hunter went first to Little Snow Island, where Bollinger jumped ashore to retrieve a large mooring ball encrusted with algae. Beyond Little Snow Island toward Catlin Shore Road on the mainland, Valente and Bollinger spotted a small cove congested with dock foam, seaweed and a plastic water jug. Bollinger climbed to the bow with a gaffe and speared various items, passing them to Valente, who filled a black trash bag.
“We’ll have to come back at low tide and get the rest,” Valente said.
Most recently, the conservancy has begun to cultivate oysters, in part to further purify the waters in the bay. Each oyster — they have 200,000 growing currently — filters 50 gallons of water each day, Hunter said. The first Snow Island Oysters were sold in the fall of 2016, and the proceeds returned to the program.
Scanlan said his “bull by the horns” approach offended some when he began cleaning up the bay, but he said, “I’m a doer, not a sayer … A lot of people were skeptical because I didn’t ask anyone’s permission, but there wasn’t anyone doing anything … the Gulf of Maine Research Institute is very excited about us because we get stuff done.”
While he invested the initial capital, the 501(c)3 is sustained by donations, and Scanlan said the conservancy model could easily be duplicated in other coves and bays.
“They’ve got to have somebody that I can give a ‘Quahog Bay Conservancy 101’ handbook to and say, ‘This is what you need,’” he said. “These problems exist in every bay. And people need jobs. There’s gotta be somebody in those areas that have the drive, financial ability and motivation.”