Commercial clam diggers Alan Hutchinson (left) and John Forrester work on the mud flats near the Deer Isle causeway in July 2009. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Deer Isle boasts some of the most productive clam flats in Maine. In 2019, the island raked in more than 600,000 pounds of soft shell clams, more than any other port in the state.

But the Hancock County town and its neighbor, Stonington, have struggled to get enough members for their joint shellfish conservation committee that oversees the resource, raising concerns about the loss of local control over the two islands’ lucrative clam flats and the potential for out-of-town clammers to pick them clean.

“It takes years for a clam flat to recover,” said Jim Fisher, the Deer Isle town manager. “If you’re not organized locally, you’re pretty vulnerable.”

In Maine, municipalities can create their own shellfish conservation programs, allowing them to manage the mudflats and restrict clamming largely to local residents.

Stonington and Deer Isle formed their committee in 1999 and allow one non-resident clammer for every 10 locals who get a license.

The fear is, if the committee continues to struggle to find members who can regularly attend meetings, the towns would relinquish their management authority back to the state. The flats would then be opened up to any licensed digger up and down the coast. Both Fisher and Stonington town manager Kathleen Billings worry that could lead to overharvesting and loss of income for local clammers.

“It’s an important resource to the island,” Billings said. “It’s jobs and it’s money.”

To ensure the committee can continue to function, Deer Isle and Stonington are  considering lowering the quorum threshold at their respective spring town meetings.

The committee currently consists of five members from each town. Because it’s a joint board, each town needs to have at least three members present for a quorum.

This has proved tough at times. In the past, the committee has had seven members in attendance, but it wasn’t the right split between the towns and there was no quorum. The towns now propose to drop the “joint” part of the committee, making it a single body. Under the proposed amendment, a quorum would simply be a majority of the members, as long as there are at least two members from each town.

Billings, who had previously chaired the committee for 10 years, said there used to be more participation, but nowadays there are fewer clammers, the towns’ residents are getting older and more homes in town are becoming seasonal. She noted that the quorum problem isn’t unique to the shellfish committee and other boards have also struggled to find enough members.

Clammers, though often work multiple jobs and aren’t usually the meeting types, Fisher said, and if the committee has a reputation of not gaining a quorum, it’s even harder to entice people to come.

To encourage more participation, the proposed amendment to the ordinance would also require clammers to attend three hours of meetings as part of the mandated conservation work to get a license.

“If they want to clam in Deer Isle and Stonginton they have to be involved in the committee,” Fisher said. “They need to come to some meetings.”