GOULDSBORO — Clam diggers have agreed to limit their harvest of large “breeder” clams to help safeguard the fishermen’s own economic future.
In a meeting of the Shellfish Committee March 2, the diggers also authorized Shellfish Warden Michael Pinkham to have 20 traps built to catch green crabs, which are decimating the clam population.
Pinkham said the mesh wire traps will be built by Shay Trap Co. in Sullivan at a cost of about $25 each and will be 22 inches long, 12 inches wide and 9 inches high and weigh less than 10 pounds.
“You set it as the tide is going and tend it when you come back,” Pinkham said.
The clammers also agreed with Pinkham’s suggestion that they leave most of the large clams in the mud.
“If you don’t leave some of those big clams in the flats, you won’t have any clams for the future,” said Sherman Merchant.
The proposed ordinance — which will be taken to selectmen and then Town Meeting in June — would limit the harvest of clams larger than 4 inches to 10 percent of a day’s haul.
Some diggers wondered whether limiting the harvest of larger clams might not add pressure on smaller clams as diggers try to make up the difference.
State law limits the harvest of clams under 2 inches to 10 percent of a day’s haul and the Gouldsboro ordinance sets a stricter 5 percent limit.
Heidi Leighton told clam diggers they are “efficient” and leave little behind.
“The big clams you have now are probably the only big clams you are going to have,” she said.
Leighton said the 2-inch clams produce about 2 million spat (spawn) while 4-inch clams produce “exponentially more.”
She said limiting the harvest of clams over 4 inches was a good start.
Smaller clams, Leighton said, grow more quickly. As they mature, their energy shifts to reproduction.
While clams quickly mature to 2 inches, it might take five years to grow from 3¾ inches to 4 inches, she said.
Jenny Moon, a local dealer, said she doesn’t buy the larger clams, so diggers know there is no incentive to harvest them.
“There is no market for them,” she said.
The larger clams tend to have larger bellies and can be tougher.
On the subject of green crabs, Pinkham said it is his hope that the clammers will carry the traps out to the mud flats where they dig and check them when they return the following day.
Green crabs, or Carcinus maenas, are originally from Europe and reached U.S. shores in the mid-1800s, riding across the Atlantic in the ballast water on ships.
The crabs were first spotted in Casco Bay in 1900 and reached Jonesport by 1951.
Considered an invasive species, the green crabs are found primarily in the soft bottom intertidal zone favored by soft shell clams and other bivalve shellfish.
The crabs feed on mussels and soft shell clams. The clams extend their siphon into the water to filter feed on plankton. The green crabs grab the siphon, yank the clams out of the sand and eat them.
The increase in the green crab population in Maine has been attributed to a warming in ocean temperatures.
Leighton cautioned the fishermen that if they toss their green crabs in compost files they should crush them first.
“If you don’t kill them, they will walk off,” she said.
Pinkham said the diggers could crush the green crabs and use them to bait other crabs.
Sullivan, Sorrento, Franklin, Trenton, Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine are trapping green crabs with much larger lobster-sized traps that require boats to haul them, Pinkham said.
He said that once he knows which diggers want to participate, he will apply for a permit from the Department of Marine Resources that lists the names of the clammers who will be using the traps.
“The permit will be issued to the municipality’s Shellfish Committee for predator control,” Pinkham said. “We don’t have to apply for individual licenses.”