This story was originally published in August 2018.
At low tide, the waves retreat, revealing the clam flats scattered along the Maine coast. And like clockwork, the diggers emerge. With a pail in one hand and a rake in the other, they roam the sand, searching for tiny clam-made holes in the ground that show them where to dig.
In Maine, clam digging has long been a piece of coastal culture, and in many towns, visitors are welcome to give it a try. All you need is a little insider knowledge and in most places a low-cost license.
If you’re new to clam digging, the first thing you do is contact the municipal office of the city or town where you want to dig.
In Maine, towns manage clam flats in cooperation with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, meaning that the rules and fees in each town are different. For example, Georgetown offers a seven-day recreational clamming license for $25, while up the coast in Searsport, the town office offers a 72-hour recreational clamming license for $15.
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“We sell a lot of them,” Searsport town clerk Deborah Plourde said. “I never get a lot of feedback, but everyone is very excited to go clamming.”
Searsport and many other towns also sell a limited number of year-round recreational licenses, with a percentage allocated to residents and a smaller percentage to non-residents. It all depends on the abundance and health of the clams in those towns. And operating outside this, many Maine state parks, such as Reid State Park in Georgetown and Wolfe’s Neck State Park in Freeport, permit recreational clamming without a license with park admission.
This shellfish management system was put in place in 1963, when Maine enacted legislation that authorized towns to enact shellfish ordinances, subject to approval of the Commissioner of Marine Resources.
“It’s all very carefully managed and controlled, but it can also be a pretty complicated sort of system to understand for people who are just interested in going out for a day to gather clams for personal use,” Jeff Nichols, Director of Communication for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said.
Once you have the license to dig, you need to know where to dig. Along the Maine coast, certain clam flats are closed to diggers because of biotoxins, bacteria, pollutants and for conservation efforts. Updated maps of these closed areas are available on the Maine Department of Marine Resources website, but they can be difficult to navigate for the inexperienced clammer.
To help recreational clam diggers out, many town offices provide maps and directions to which clam flats are open. Or the town will direct you to the local shellfish warden.
Follow the rules
For about two hours on either side of low tide, John Hentz is out patrolling the clam flats of Georgetown. For the past 28 years, he has served as the town’s Municipal Shellfish Conservation Warden.
“Conservation is the most important part of that title,” Hentz said. “There are about 80 of us up and down the coast in the state of Maine.”
Out on the flats, he makes sure those who are digging have the required license. He also keeps an eye on how many clams people harvest and even the size of the clams. There are rules regarding both. In Georgetown, as in many Maine towns, harvested soft-shell clams can be no smaller than 2 inches at the longest part of their shell, and recreational clam diggers are limited to 1 peck of clams per day.
A peck is slightly less than a half of a 5-gallon pail.
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To help rookie clam diggers follow these rules and become more efficient diggers, Hentz often will dig with them and lend them one of his locally made clam hoes. He also hands out an age-old measuring tool called a “clam ring,” which is simply a cross sections of a PVC pipe, 2 inches in diameter.
In addition to educating first-time harvesters, Hentz ensures no one exhausts the resource by overharvesting. He also patrols closed clam flats, where he’s caught people digging, often under the cloak of night.
“The most important part of my job is to make sure nobody digs for polluted clams,” Hentz said. “I work for hours in the darkness checking closed areas. The objective is for no polluted shellfish to ever get into the market where people can buy them and get sick.”