BRUNSWICK, Maine — Tim Johnson of Harpswell had been clamming for more than 30 years when, in 2014, he hung up his hoe.
Between predators such as the invasive green crab and other factors, the flats just weren’t profitable any more.
“We’d go out, and there’s nothing there,” Johnson of Brunswick said. “It’s kind of depressing to dig the last clam.”
In fact, the legal amount of softshell clams being harvested are down 70 percent since the green crab invasion of recent years, Brunswick Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux said — though he said the invasive crustaceans seem to have eased up a bit this year, perhaps because of a cold winter.
Unable to make a living, even second- and third-generation clammers are looking for work elsewhere. But Devereaux and consultant Darcie Couture of Fair Winds Inc. are determined to find a way for lifelong clammers to continue to make a living on the flats through what Couture calls an “aquaculture renaissance.”
In February, as shellfish flats lay buried beneath inches of ice, a large group of biologists, professors and other experts brought fishermen together each week to learn about shellfish biology, shellfish management, site selection, gear and biosecurity — biological threats to shellfish.
The course, offered at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and organized by the Maine Sea Grant Program, the University of Maine, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the Island Institute.
Couture and Devereaux explained the “flip bag” system they learned during a trip to Seattle, a practice not common on the East Coast.
Officials from Barnstable, Massachusetts, spoke about aquaculture management and how they navigate federal and state regulations.
“They realized there’s not much left out there,” Couture said of the fishermen. “That’s why they’re willing to sit there for four hours a night for eight weeks.”
On Saturday, a dozen or so harvesters joined Devereaux and Couture, waded out into knee-deep mud off Mere Point to begin a multi-species intertidal shellfish farming demonstration project that, despite decimated flats, could allow future generations to continue to earn a living from clams, oysters and quahogs.
They pounded posts deep into the mud, then formed square plots with rope, from which they hung “flip bags” that were then filled with seed oysters — 20,000 oysters purchased from Toni Simmons at Muscongus Bay Oysters.
“Other oyster farmers get worried because there is oyster disease that can wipe whole areas out,” Devereaux said. “But all of our oyster batches have been tested by Toni.”
Each of the 20 bags contains 1,000 oysters.
“The bags have floats on the bottom, and they hang freely at low tide,” Devereaux said. “When the tides come in, the float lifts the bottom of bag and suspends it into the water column so the shellfish can filter. With the tide, they get tumbled and they’re protected from predators.”
In the upper intertidal zone, Devereaux’s son, Derek, who is working for Fair Winds Inc. this summer, broadcast handfuls of small quahogs, which were then covered by protective netting. Nearby, others scattered handfuls of softshell clams and secured the nets over those plots.
“The idea is that they will grow and produce babies,” Devereaux said.
Brunswick’s committee has worked with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources on a draft ordinance, which must still be approved — along with approval from the Army Corps of Engineers — for the town to officially move forward with leasing plots.
Chris Warner of Georgetown, two peninsulas north, operates a 2.3-acre softshell clam farm with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. He also spoke to the aquaculture class.
“We’ve got 91 nets, about 12 feet by 18 feet. And under each net we’ve planted about 5,000 seed clams,” John Hagan, president of Manomet, said Thursday.
Both a commercial-scale operation for Warner — who will harvest the clams in another year — and a research experiment, Warner’s focus is on keeping green crabs and other predators from the seeds.
“He’s testing a couple of different mesh sizes and some nets with no clams and some spots are seeded with no nets,” Hagan said. “It appears to be working, but we’ll know a lot more this fall.”
Hagan and Warner are about to expand their project to five other municipalities after receiving the prestigious Saltonstall-Kennedy grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency for $288,000.
When Warner spoke to the aquaculture class, “He said, ‘This is really possible,’” Couture said. “There’s a huge gap between the reality these guys see every day on the mudflats and the ivory tower (of sustainable aquaculture), but Chris provided that [connection].”
Lobster pots to oyster beds
David Hunter of Harpswell also attended the course. Hunter is the steward of the Quahog Bay Conservation off Snow Island, which was started last year by Pat Scanlan.
Scanlan, the nephew of Dodge Morgan, the island’s former owner, only visits Snow Island for a few weeks per year. But after a conversation with Hunter a couple of years ago, he was determined to clean up the bay and educate others about the importance of doing the same.
“When I told him [Quahog Bay] was closed to fishing, he said, ‘What can we do about it?’” Hunter said Wednesday. “I said some transient boaters aren’t doing the right thing [with waste] and he started the idea of a pumpout boat. Then we went full circle with crab fishing and now the oysters.”
Hunter and another employee run the free pumpout boat and catch green crabs — Hunter, too, says the numbers are down dramatically this year.
This year, Hunter also is growing two plots of “a couple hundred thousand” oysters in the bay.
“Within the last two weeks they’ve done real well,” he said Wednesday. “They’re growing phenomenally. It’s a great area to grow oysters.”
Hunter attributes the growth to the geography of the bay, an area he’s fished in all his life.
“I think the bay is consistent in depth so the water stays warmer,” he said. “I think that helps with the growth.”
Oyster farming also has caught on with some former fishermen, including Harpswell’s John Rogers, who sold his federal permit and just received a lease to grow oysters off Orr’s Island as Dogshead Oyster, and Johnson, a longtime area clammer who hasn’t dug since 2013. He awaits approval of a lease for 4 acres in Harpswell and hopes to have Greenboat Oyster Company viable within two years.
Johnson had been clamming since 1982 — he also has dived for urchin and other jobs — and last winter, after a year spent growing oysters, he attended the aquaculture course.
“I learned about what’s happening with growing oysters, and I decided that was the direction to go in,” he said. “If you’re forced to make a living some other way, everyone comes up with their own solution. It’s a complete shift of mindset from wild clam gathering to aquaculture or farming.”
“The Damariscotta River has basically dominated oyster production for decades, but there’s a lot of other really prime oyster areas in Maine,” Johnson said. “And the people who know best where they are are fishermen who have worked in those areas. I think we’re going to see some really premium shellfish get produced in Maine.”
“The wild resources are not sustainable the way they have been for decades,” Couture said. “And this is kind of a pivotal time. If we can get these guys to latch on to these concepts, and their kids who are in junior high or high school — third- or fourth-generation clamming families — they may be able to step into the future in a much more sustainable way and still work on the mudflats and be in charge of themselves, but in a way that is going to guarantee they make a living.”
The project has become something of an obsession for Devereaux and Couture, who finds herself checking the flip bags “almost every 12 hours” at different stages of the tide cycle, just to make sure they’re flipping as they should.
Devereaux imagines that, should this “revolutionary” type of aquaculture grab hold, residents of Brunswick and other coastal communities could lease small plots along the shoreline and grow their own oysters for personal use — “sort of like a community shellfish garden.”
The demonstration project off Mere Point will test the seeds of that vision.