Trenches left by dredging in the New Meadows River in West Bath. Credit: Courtesy Dan Devereaux

WEST BATH, Maine — Prompted by concerns raised by other shellfish harvesters and Brunswick’s marine resource officer, state officials will determine whether a Phippsburg boat dredging for quahogs in the New Meadows River in West Bath poses a threat to the resource.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, has directed staff to look into the issue, department spokesman Jeff Nichols confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

Keliher met earlier Wednesday with Brunswick Marine Resource Officer Dan Devereaux, one of many concerned about a single boat dredging the river for quahogs, leaving what harvesters say are devastated trenches in the mud that during the past decade has once again become productive after years of being off limits to harvesters.

In a May 25 letter to Keliher, Devereaux wrote that he and other officials from West Bath and Harpswell have received calls from many of the 140 commercial shellfishermen who work the area, oyster farmers and others concerned about the impact of the dredging in the New Meadows River by Phippsburg resident Raymond “Bucky” Alexander.

Alexander did not return several phone messages left for him Wednesday.

Devereaux acknowledges that Alexander is not violating existing law, but he’s concerned that the dredging will cause irreparable harm to the ecosystem that has been nursed back to health through conservation and harvest control efforts. Other quahog harvesters use hand rakes or lean over the edge of a boat with a “bull rake” to pull the large, hard-shell clams from the area identified by experts as an aquaculture hotspot.

Devereaux said he understands that Alexander has sold as many as 2,700 quahogs in one tide — “three times as many as the guys who hand-harvest.”

“I won’t buy from him because he’s dragging the intertidal zone,” Ray Trombley of Casco Bay Shellfish said Tuesday outside his facility. Inside, several hand diggers who declined to give their names counted their quahogs and agreed that the dredging is destroying the habitat, including endangered eelgrass

Another harvester who declined to give his name, said, “When I wash my rake out, everything [except quahogs] goes back in the ocean. He’s not taking just quahogs.”

According to Devereaux, 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 have returned.

The intertidal area — the mudflats you see at low tide — is managed by local marine resources officers, while the subtidal area, always underwater, is under the jurisdiction of the state.

Dredging could be detrimental to reestablishing quahog, mussel and oyster populations, Devereaux wrote, because instead of hand-implement extraction, which allows the smaller, spawning creatures to remain in the mud, dredging removes everything.

“Millions of quahog spawn that could have settled up and down the river both intertidal and subtidal will be much less likely to occur if the dredging activity continues,” he wrote.

Devereaux asked Keliher to immediately close the river to dredging or, if that is not possible, to grant a hearing to consider rulemaking to limit dredging to certain areas of the river.

But Doug Alexander, the West Bath shellfish warden, said Monday that Bucky Alexander isn’t breaking any laws.

“Everybody’s against dredging,” he said. “It tears the bottom up, but the predicament we’re in is there’s no line that says the intertidal zone is here and the subtidal zone is here. It’s hard to enforce … as the West Bath warden, I couldn’t prove in a court of law that he was breaking any law.”

Doug Alexander said he and Bucky Alexander worked together to place buoys according to GPS coordinates, but he said, “We need guidance from the state.”

On Wednesday, Devereaux said Keliher seemed receptive to the concerns, and had asked staff members to research dredging rules and rulemaking. He said no timeline was discussed, but Devereaux said he and others plan to keep the topic at the forefront with an eye to the resource being lost with each dredge.

“How do coastal communities plan to keep historic fisheries alive? Well, here’s an opportunity,” Deveraux said. “You can employ one guy for a couple of years or 50 guys over the course of the next 20 years, if you’re allowing the fishery to expand. As it expands, it allows more opportunity for local harvesters to be licensed.”

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