With the weather cold enough to freeze freshly dug softshell clams into a solid mass, harvesters are having a tough winter.

Winter weather is tough on clammers

PEMBROKE — The winter weather that is driving Mainers to distraction is making life even tougher than usual for Maine’s clam diggers.

From the shores of Cobscook Bay way Downeast to Waldoboro on the Midcoast, diggers are struggling to get access to the softshell clams they harvest for a living.

One Pembroke shellfish dealer reports that landings in his area have dropped by 90 percent since stormy weather has brought unremitting ice and snow to the area over the past month.

In a recent email, Tim Sheehan, owner of Gulf of Maine Inc. said that shellfish harvesters from Eastport, Perry, Pleasant Point and Pembroke have “to make their way down miles of unplowed roads, through deep beachside drifts and across ice-covered clam flats” to get to where they can dig for clams.

“It’s basically beach access,” Levi Reppert, who works for Sheehan, said in a phone call last week. “That’s where they’re plowing it all in.”

Sheehan said that in many places, the beaches are covered with 15-foot snowbanks left by plow trucks and that harvesters have to wade “through chest-high snow” to bring ashore what clams they are able to dig from ice-covered clam flats.

Access to the beaches and flats is a problem, Milan Jamieson, Pembroke’s second selectman and road commissioner, said Monday. So far, the town has had a snowfall of “pretty near 9 feet.” That makes for tall snowbanks along the roadside. The clam flats, Jamieson said, “are frozen up farther than in the 41 years I’ve lived here.”

While the state plows Route 1, which passes through Pembroke, the town has to deal with plowing the often small roads that lead to the shore.

“I can’t turn around on the beach, not with a 20-ton plow truck, and a guy’s not going to back up half a mile,” Jamieson said.

Besides just the sheer quantity, the snow clearance problem in Pembroke is financial. Plowing is done by contract, with payment based on mileage. The contracts don’t cover the extra mileage entailed in plowing out roads to access to the flats.

The situation is similar with access leading to the main boat landing in town. According to Jamieson, although the landing gets commercial usage, especially during scallop season, it was “built for recreational boating, with a wink and a nod.”

“If the town wants them opened up, they’ll have to pay.”

Reppert said harvesters feel like they already pay plenty.

“They pay a fee to the state for a license, then they pay the town to dig. People are trying to work and they can’t. It’s definitely been tough.”

In 2013, the last year for which the Department of Marine Resources has published statistics, Maine harvesters landed just under 10.7 million pounds of softshell clams worth some $16.9 million, an average price of about $1.58 per pound. That made softshell clams the state’s third most valuable fishery behind lobsters and elvers.

Last week, Reppert said Gulf of Maine was paying diggers $2.10 per pound, if they have any clams to sell, about $1 more than last year at this time. According to Sheehan, the “typical winter clam price” is around $1 per pound. This year’s higher price is “virtually unheard of at this time of year,” he said.

The price and the problems with access to the flats aren’t limited to the Cobscook Bay region.

Hannah Annis is a DMR regional shellfish biologist based at the department’s laboratory in Lamoine who works closely with municipal shellfish wardens along the coast.

According to Annis, ice is a problem for harvesters pretty much everywhere.

In Frenchman Bay, she said, “there’s not a lot of places they can go.” The same is true of the usually busy flats in the Lincoln County town of Waldoboro, Annis said, where only a handful of diggers have kept working.

On Tuesday, Deer Isle-Stonington Shellfish Warden Raelene Pert said that flats on the eastern, Blue Hill Bay side of Deer Isle were frozen up and couldn’t be harvested. On the western side of the island, “most of it is open,” Pert said, but “there’s not that many diggers.”

The few who do brave the icy conditions are getting $2 per pound for their clams.

“It’s awesome,” Pert said. “You can make a day’s pay if you can get the clams.”

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]
Stephen Rappaport

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