AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Marine Resources announced Friday that because of heavy rainfall, shellfish flats in most of the state are closed.
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George D. Lapointe ordered the closure Friday morning of all shellfish flats between the Maine-New Hampshire border and Western Head in Cutler. The closures were necessitated by extremely high rainfall in Maine over the previous 24 hours. Rainfall of more than 2 inches usu-ally triggers shellfishing closures, according to Michelle Mason Webber, the state’s shellfish program coordinator. In addition to the risk of contaminants being washed toward the shoreline, an influx of rain also can trigger a proliferation of harmful bacteria such as E. coli.
Mason Webber said scientists for the marine resources department would begin collecting water samples along the coastline Monday with the intent of beginning a testing regimen Wednesday. That means the earliest day the flats could reopen is Thursday — providing there’s no more rain.
“It depends on what Mother Nature does,” Mason Webber said. “We never know what she’s going to throw at us.”
The National Weather Service on Friday was predicting a snow and rain mixture in Maine through at least Monday.
Lapointe said though some people question the necessity of some shellfish flat closures, the risks are all too real. A few years ago, a Portland-area man died after eating contaminated clams that did not come from a certified dealer.
“The bacterial poisoning can make people sick and kill people,” said Lapointe. “We are obviously concerned about public health. If people do get sick or die, the value of our clam industry would be vastly diminished.”
Allen Legg, a shellfish harvester from Cherryfield, said he was headed to the flats Friday when he learned of the closure.
“It hurts pretty bad [when flats are closed],” said Legg.
A 2005 University of Maine study found that a one-week statewide closure in August would result in an estimated loss of $1.2 million for clam diggers and mussel harvesters, and an economic loss of $2.9 million for Maine’s economy.
On Friday, Legg predicted, “It’s going to be a real bad year.” He fears that about the time the flood closures end, the red tide will move in and close the flats again. Scientists announced this week that deep-water testing revealed a potentially bad year for red tide. In past years, the poisonous algae have led to months-long clo-sures.
Last year was particularly difficult with red tide and flood closures staggering almost perfectly all summer.
Lapointe said Legg raised a valid concern.
“It’s all potential at this point,” he said. “Closures put people in an income squeeze that could be very difficult. It’s a touchy situation.”