Many Americans have just participated in celebrating 100 years of success in protecting and enjoying Acadia National Park and the National Park System. So it is disconcerting to see momentum behind a new law to end Acadia’s jurisdiction over its intertidal lands.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and U.S. Sen. Angus King recently introduced a bill that would open Acadia’s intertidal lands to “traditional uses,” including commercial harvests of rockweed, clams and worms.
Of course, we need to be sensitive to maintaining “traditional uses” around our state. Yet, consider that there isn’t a constituency across the country that doesn’t want to harvest something in traditional ways in our national parks. How do we decide which traditional uses should be the subject of special legislation intended to circumvent a national park’s enabling legislation and its management policies? In what condition are the rest of the clam flats in Maine, having been subjected to traditional uses, to warrant opening one of the last potential refuges for adult clams in Maine? Should Acadia, as this proposed legislation intends, be just another location in Maine where this commercial activity occurs?
The park system remains our national treasure only when it receives the best protection scientists, managers and politicians can provide. While parks produce great enjoyment and economic benefit — because people are drawn to the authentic, wild and intact nature of their resources — there is always temptation to nibble around the edges for the fleeting profits from harvesting commercial species in national parks that already are depleted elsewhere.
Intact natural systems are the healthiest and most resilient systems. National parks with all their parts intact will best weather the storms of invasive species (green crabs, ash borers, woolly adelgids, for example) and climate change. With all their parts and processes, in naturally determined relationships and proportions — that is, unharvested — national parks also can serve as blueprints for finding our way back when necessary.
Protecting intact clam populations may not inspire the people into the streets in protest, but harvestable clams may play unappreciated roles in the intertidal community at large. Reproductive value in invertebrates, such as clams, often increases dramatically with age and size. Populations with large adult clams produce vastly more planktonic larvae that settle and thrive wherever currents and suitable landing substrates allow.
In any realistic view of traditional use, one must factor in the predation of the invasive green crab; it is already having significant impacts on clam flats, especially in southern Maine. Green crabs prey heavily on the smaller and medium-sized softshell clams. With commercial harvesters taking the larger clams and green crabs the smaller and medium ones, will clam flats be able to withstand the pressure of “traditional use” in an age of invasive species and ocean warming? Would commercial harvesting be more sustainable outside of Acadia if robust natural populations — with their huge dispersal capacity — were maintained within the park under active implementation of park service policies on controlling and mitigating the impacts of invasive species? We should know for sure before legislation opens the park intertidal to the same treatment as everywhere else.
Whether the resource is cod, shrimp, elvers, rockweed, clams or worms, management should be based on local study, not conjecture nor even tradition, regrettably, if we are to avoid harming our “golden goose” — America’s natural heritage. When their natural systems remain relatively intact, national parks are wonderful places to support science. Scientific understanding gives management an appropriate foundation for making the right decisions. In fact, Acadia is among the best parks for science with its bold experiment in making the park a hub of research and education. Acadia’s Schoodic Education and Research Center should be able to provide access to the park’s intertidal resources for important research opportunities on larval dispersal, predation effects, and predator control techniques in unharvested clam flats. Unharvested sites in Acadia can draw the science community, provide rare experimental controls, and generate answers.
Supporting new legislation that facilitates extraction of resources from a national park is a very bad idea and terrible precedent. This is especially so coming out of Acadia — a park and community that are looked to across the U.S. for their history of positive leadership in park protection. We urge others to actively support keeping Acadia’s intertidal zone under the careful stewardship of Acadia National Park.
Dr. Michael Soukup is a retired chief scientist for the park service. He lives in Blue Hill. Dr. Mary Foley is a retired regional chief scientist for the National Park Service. She lives in Carrabassett Valley.