BRUNSWICK, Maine — Raymond “Bucky” Alexander figures he has at least $100,000 and several years invested in rebuilding his boat and crafting, by hand, the iron dredger he has used this summer to dredge for quahogs in the New Meadows River.
He checked with the Maine Marine Patrol about the law, and early this spring, when he headed down the river, he and his cousin, West Bath Shellfish Warden Doug Alexander, set out buoys to mark the subtidal area, the part of the river that is underwater even at low tide, where the law says he can dredge.
Ever since the New Meadows Lakes and River reopened to quahog digging in 2009, drivers traveling Route 1 between West Bath and Brunswick have seen small boats, listing heavily to one side, carrying harvesters in the lake leaning over the edge of a boat with a “bull rake” to pull the large, hard-shell clams from the area.
While Alexander’s dredging is perfectly legal in the New Meadows River, other shellfish harvesters and oyster farmers aren’t happy with his method, and appealed to the town. They cited concerns about the sustainability of the quahog fishery, the river and the ecosystem.
Last week, the department proposed a rule change that would prohibit Alexander from dredging south of a line between Indian Point in Brunswick, Bragdon Island and the end of Close Reach Road in West Bath — essentially keeping Alexander out of the the approximately 6-mile section of the river he’s found to be most productive.
Some, like Brunswick Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux, argue that flats that were once dredged until empty could easily go barren again. Others argue that the larger quahogs Alexander takes release exponentially more spat, or seed.
Still others say Alexander’s fellow quahoggers are simply envious of his ingenuity and success.
“They can go out and get 2,000, 2,500 quahogs regularly, at least in the town of Brunswick,” Devereaux said of quahoggers using hand or bull rakes. Alexander said that number nears 3,000 per day for the most serious of diggers.
At 14 cents per quahog — the going rate Friday at Cantrell Seafood in Topsham — 2,500 quahogs would bring in $350.
The New Meadows River was once “abundant with diverse shellfish resources, including large mussel bars and vast European oyster beds,” but dredging left the flats empty until nearly a decade ago, when various species became abundant enough to harvest again, Devereaux has said.
In 2009, New Meadows reopened to quahog digging for the first time in a decade. At the time, Devereaux likened the number of harvesters rushing to the river to “a gold rush.”
But last November, state marine resources regulators closed the lakes along the Brunswick border for the first three months of the year and every Sundays because of what DMR staff said was a decline in the quahog population.
Alexander argues his dredger isn’t the cause of the decline. In fact, he argues it may actually benefit the quahog population by removing the shells of large, dead quahogs and allowing younger quahogs to move up in the mud and absorb nutrients.
Standing outside his home not far from the New Meadows Lakes on Friday, Alexander demonstrated the dredger he handcrafted. Iron rods ensure any quahogs that are too small fall back into the river, and the dredger itself is designed to only take the top four inches of mud, he said — far too shallow to affect soft-shell clams.
But in June, Devereaux approached Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher about a possible closure after shellfish harvesters complained to him. Devereaux said he and 140 commercial shellfish, oyster farmers and others who had contacted him were worried about Alexander’s boat leaving devastated trenches in the mud that could cause irreparable harm to the ecosystem that had been nursed back to health through conservation and harvest control efforts.
According to the notice, DMR has monitored the status of the quahog resource in the upper New Meadows since 2012 “and has documented a decline in the population.”
The proposed rule change states that “the department considered information on the harvesting activity occurring during the spring and summer of 2018, information on the status of the quahog resource, and input from the Marine Patrol.”
But Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association, said he has yet to see any evidence that dredging kills more quahogs than hand or bull raking.
“A lot of people are just making assumptions that are having an impact on quahoggers,” Coffin said. “It’s unbelievable, really. And it creates a sense of fear in the clammers.”
Alexander, who fishes for herring from June to November, just hopes his investment — and ingenuity — hasn’t gone to waste.
“My family relies on me,” he said Friday. “This is something that keeps us going so I can work throughout the winter.”
“I’m not trying to take from these guys,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my own thing and evidently I ain’t allowed to do that.”
The DMR will hold a public hearing on the proposed rule change at 3 p.m. Oct. 10 at the West Bath Fire Station. The deadline to submit comments to the DMR is Oct. 20.
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