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Maine Blood Wormers: We're not to Blame for Clam Flat Devastation
01/22/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Invasive green crabs have decimated the livelihoods of Maine clammers in recent years. And now green crabs are coming to lawmakers' attention. Today the Marine Resources Committee heard public testimony on a bill that aims to restore ravaged clam flats by allowing towns to prohibit both clam and marine worm harvesting. But worm diggers say the bill unfairly targets their industry for a problem they have nothing to do with. Patty Wight reports.

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When Freeport clammer Chad Coffin surveys the tidal flats he relies on for his livelihood, he says he sees a resource virtually wiped out by invasive green crabs. And others are also taking notice.

"Towns in Maine are just starting to wake up to the devastation that green crabs are having on their marine resources," Coffins ays.

He says that's why a bill is needed to bolster towns' efforts to protect dedicated shellfish conservation areas. "This bill allows towns to protect their investment by providing them with the ability to prohibit any type of harvesting from occurring in protected areas while the resource is being restored," he says.

Currently, a conservation area restricts clam harvesting, but it doesn't restrict marine worm harvesting. This bill would allow towns to prohibit both. That prospect is raising the hackles of worm diggers, who showed up in droves for the public hearing. Jonathan Renwick has more than 40 years of worm harvesting under his belt.

"This bill may have been presented as a clam enhancement bill, or even a clam conservation bill. But the simple fact is, it's about ownership of the mud," Renwick said.

Renwick fears the legislation will give any town with a clam ordinance the power to control the harvesting of other species. And if the bill is an attempt to address the green crab problem, wonders Margaret Harrington - whose father owns a bait shop in Woolwich - then why, she asks, does the bill never once refer to them?

"Everybody keeps bringing up the green crabs. But when this bill was written, the green crabs were never mentioned," she said. "I cannot find anywhere in there where it addresses a green crab problem. It only addresses the pereceived problem of the blood worm diggers."

Worm diggers - who often harvest clams as well - say they have no bearing on the green crab problem. And Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher agrees. Part of his testimony excerpted a 2001 study in the Journal of Shellfish Research that found that "blood wormers should continue to harvest commercially from areas closed to shellfishing without reprisal or fear that they are causing damage to populations of juvenile soft shell clams," he said.

Keliher opposes the bill, but says his department would support a narrower one that would prohibit clam and marine worm harvesting in areas protected with netting. "The netting is important, because so far, it is the only tool that has been proven effective in protecting seed clams."

While some questioned the feasibility of setting up protective nets on acres of tidal flats, the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, says he supports the idea.

"We want the muncipalities to be working for conservation of an area," he said. "We don't want them to just to be able to close down flats - we want them to be actively doing something about bringing those flats back."

And members of the Marine Resources Committee support the idea as well. They approved a new version reflecting the focus on prohibiting all harvesting in netted areas, which will ultimately head to the Legislature for vote.


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