BRUNSWICK, Maine — Despite angry words and a few veiled threats, worm diggers and clam harvesters will try to work together to find common ground and allow the two groups to harvest the same flats without interfering with each other’s livelihood.
The decision to work toward an agreement was reached during last Wednesday’s meeting of the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee, at which members of both industries turned out to discuss proposed legislation requested by the committee and submitted by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.
The bill — which is on hold pending a memorandum of understanding — 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.
But the two parties only have until May 15 to reach that agreement, Gerzofsky said.
The bill has been placed on hold pending the outcome of that working group, according to Ericka Dodge, communications director for Senate President Justin Alfond.
“The bill has not been withdrawn, it just hasn’t been referred to committee,” Dodge said Tuesday. “On May 15, if nothing happens [with the working group], the Senate will refer it to committee,” and the legislative process will move forward.
Worm diggers say the bill would give control of their industry to another — the clam diggers. They argue that the bill is premature because they haven’t been asked to avoid the high-density seed areas and that a law “stuffed down [their] throats” isn’t the way to achieve their goal.
In the summer of 2010, harvesters noticed a “huge influx” of worm diggers in northern Casco Bay, according to Brunswick Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux. Bloodworm diggers are allowed to harvest anywhere because they aren’t subject to any public health laws.
At the same time, Brunswick was on the verge of reopening “The Bullpen,” a long-closed harvesting area that was full of clams.
Devereaux said the flats, where harvesters had concentrated their conservation efforts by laying seed clams, were “severely impaired” by the worm diggers.
In an effort to prevent such a situation in the future, Devereaux and Marine Resources Committee chairman Mark Latti met with Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher earlier this year, and then the committee lobbied Gerzofsky to sponsor the current bill.
While Devereaux said Wednesday that the intent of the legislation is to only close smaller, specific areas of “high-density seed clams,” he acknowledged that the language of the proposed bill doesn’t state that.
Bloodworm diggers last Wednesday said the proposed bill was just another assault on their livelihoods, and argued that just because Brunswick might manage their flats responsibly and make reasonable requests to the DMR doesn’t mean other communities would do the same.
“Not every town is run like [Brunswick],” said Dan Harrington of Woolwich, a worm digger who said he “harvests just about every species” on the flats. “Your legislation gives this control to them.”
Worm digger Brian Chadwick of Woolwich said he worries about a “snowball effect,” noting, “If it starts in Brunswick, it could go to Freeport and Belfast and before you know it every town in Maine doesn’t want worm digging in their town.”
“Somebody is always trying to get us kicked out of their town,” said Phil Harrington, a worm dealer for 25 years.
“You guys are talking like you own these flats,” James Campbell, a worm digger for nearly 30 years, told the committee. “You don’t own the state … The clam diggers aren’t the only ones working these flats.
“No one has asked us worm diggers for help,” Campbell continued. “You guys want your conservation — we’re right here, we’re willing to help. In 30 years of digging, never have I seen a sign saying “Seed flat, keep out.” … I say to your committee, you guys are going about this the wrong way. … It seems like you guys are coming after us worm diggers.”
Campbell added, “Science does not support blaming the worm diggers [for the decline of the clam flats].”
In fact, Will Ambrose, professor of marine ecology at Bates College, who has studied the impact of worm digging on soft-shell clam growth since the 1990s, said Campbell is right.
“The impact worm digging has on clams has probably been overstated,” Ambrose.
Ambrose said this spring that according to his research in the late 1990s, “There wasn’t a large percentage of clams being impacted to the point of death by worm digging.”
Ambrose said the controversy between clammers and wormers “goes back to at least 1979 … because these groups do not mix, for a whole variety of reasons: socioeconomic, geopolitical — they just don’t get along. I’m surprised somebody hasn’t been shot over this.”
Devereaux said he doesn’t disagree with Ambrose’s assessment, but said, “What we’re seeing now is different than what’s been studied in the past. We’re seeing continued disturbance of the mud. We’re seeing repeated, every-other-day digging through the same dig marks. When you continually flip the mud like that, it makes it soupy, black silty mud. It makes it almost anoxic [depleted of dissolved oxygen], and nothing can survive.”
Devereaux said the legislation may not be the best solution for everyone, “but we have to find a way to co-manage these species.”
Dan Harrington argued last Wednesday for improved communication instead of “a bill that gives one industry control over another. We need to work together and find common ground, because right now [this] is creating friction.”
He said worm diggers won’t be happy with any legislation controlling their digging.
“They’ll only be comfortable without a law stuffed down our throats,” Harrington said.
He asked the committee, and Gerzofsky, to hold the proposed bill and work with worm diggers on an agreement to work the flats in a way that satisfied both industries.
He said worm dealers “would adequately post” the closures and no worm buyers would likely purchase worms from a digger who harvests in closed flats.
“If we find out you’re in these areas, there are going to be serious consequences,” Rena Rithman of Wiscasset Bait said, arguing for the agreement. “As Dan says, there are other ways [of controlling digging in closed areas]. We’re telling you, we’re going to do everything [we can to stop it].”
“And if this [agreement] doesn’t work, you have the option of presenting the legislation again,” he said.
“I think if we can work this out without a law, I think that would be preferable to everyone, but if we have to have a law to make this happen, we’ll put the bill in,” Gerzofsky said Monday. “I have quite a bit of support up and down the coast, and I’m confident I could get this bill passed.”