Clam digger Paul Austin hunts bivalves near Thomas Point on the New Meadows River in Brunswick in this February 2013 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine has a rich coastline with many resources that are ripe for the picking.  

Foraging along the coast for shellfish and plants to eat is a great way to truly eat local, but there are certain regulations — and basic etiquette — that foragers should follow.

Tony Sutton, community food facilitator at the Maine Shellfish Learning Network, has been foraging for clams — otherwise known as “clamming” — for about five years.

“On my 30th birthday, we were camping along the coast and we decided to try hand pulling. We collected enough for a meal and those freshly steamed clams eaten right by the flat [where] they were dug forever changed my life.”

Sutton said clamming has become both a special family activity as well as a way to connect with Passamaquoddy culture.

“Passamaquoddy people have been digging clams for sustenance for millennia,” Sutton said. “So clamming for us is our way of connecting across generations to who we are in the world, as well as having a delicious food to eat at a meal or celebration.”

Coastal foraging doesn’t end at clams, though. Jeff Nichols, communications director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said non-commercial harvesters can pick from a variety of species including scallops, mussels, crabs, periwinkles and even lobsters if you have the right equipment.

Foraging for shellfish and other coastal critters is a little different from foraging for, say, mushrooms in that there are additional rules and regulations for certain species. To harvest some species such as lobsters and scallops — even if you don’t plan on selling them — you still need a non-commercial license from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

“For some species, there is a license exemption as long as the harvester is limiting their take below a certain amount,” Nichols said. “For example, a person can take up to two bushels of mussels daily, without having to have a license.”

Coastal foragers also have to check with the municipality where they plan to hunt. Nichols explained that municipalities with a shellfish ordinance can establish their own management measures to protect and sustain the resource in their municipality, including license limits and conservation closures.

“While no state license is required for recreational shellfish harvesting, some municipalities require a municipal license for recreational harvesting,” Nichols said. “We recommend that people interested in harvesting shellfish in a community with a shellfish ordinance contact the municipal office in that community to confirm the need for a recreational harvester license and for additional information on their shellfish conservation ordinance.”

Coastal foragers looking for shellfish also have to consider the risks posed by pollution.

“Illness caused by marine biotoxins commonly found in Maine like Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and Amnesiac Shellfish Poisoning, along with marine bacterial illnesses like Vibriosis, are serious conditions that can be fatal,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the Maine DMR regularly posts about closures related to pollution and biotoxins on their website, and foragers should be sure to check and follow the closures as they arise.

Tim Sheehan, president and co-founder of Gulf of Maine Inc., said that in his years of experience harvesting both commercially and recreationally, the best thing to do when you aren’t sure if you have the right paperwork is to call your local Marine Patrol.

Sheehan emphasized that there are edible plants along the coast the foragers can keep an eye out for, too, like sea asparagus and seaweed.

As with any foraging, make sure you don’t take too much, no matter what you are picking up along the coast ( except, perhaps, for invasive green crabs, which Sheehan said make a delicious crab stock and are “really easy” to gather by the bucketful).  

Once you have the proper paperwork and know the local ordinances, you can pull on a pair of sturdy rubber boots, grab a five-gallon bucket and get to foraging.

“The part I love about it is how easy it is to get into,” Sutton said. “You just need a recreational permit, some boots and a digger.”