HANCOCK — As Acadia National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary, a simmering dispute over worm and clam harvesting on the intertidal zone flats bordering park lands is coming to a boil.
Last fall, a park ranger allegedly confiscated one digger’s clam harvest and summoned him for taking clams from the flats inside the park boundaries. This spring, another ranger forced a worm harvester to dump his day’s take of bloodworms and leave the flats or face a summons.
Ellsworth worm digger Kenny Webber said he had started his day harvesting worms off Frazer Point and “worked around down by the old Navy base on Schoodic Point,” where he encountered the park ranger who made him return his take to the flats.
“I lost a day’s pay,” Webber said. “I had a hundred dollars worth.”
According to Webber, the ranger didn’t give him a summons.
“He didn’t write me up. He had no reason to warn me,” the digger said. “I was doing absolutely nothing wrong.”
On Saturday, some two dozen members of the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association met at Skeet Seavey’s ER Baits shop in Hancock to discuss what they see as a power grab by the park administration and to map out a response.
“It’s a bad situation, the power the government’s trying to grab,” Hampden worm digger Peter Pellerin said. “We have to stand up.”
That is just what the diggers’ association plans to do, President Dan Harrington said. He and several other officers have already contacted all four members of the Maine congressional delegation as well as several members of the Legislature to enlist their aid.
According to Harrington, staff from the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are looking into possible legislative solutions to the problem.
Fred Johnson, president of the association’s Downeast chapter, urged the diggers to contact members of the delegation to explain the problem and ask them for support in dealing with ANP.
“Our jobs are on the line,” Johnson said. “We’ll have five times the clout if all you guys do it.”
As the diggers see it, the ANP administration’s policy is that no commercial fishing, whether shellfish harvesting, worm digging or otherwise, is allowed within the park’s boundaries unless expressly authorized by federal law. That prohibition may not preclude recreational harvesting, according to the association’s Jonathan Renwick, a digger from Gouldsboro.
“They’ve said we should be happy they’re going to let people from away dig our clams,” Renwick said.
The dispute over the flats has been percolating for months, if not longer.
Last fall, Kohl Kanwit, director of public health at the Department of Marine Resources, said she had spoken with ANP Chief Ranger Stuart West about the issue. He told Kanwit that he would “ask his rangers not to enforce the rule” against commercial harvesting while state and federal authorities talked.
Since then, the department “has been in discussions with Acadia NPS staff,” and held “a couple” of phone conversations, according to DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson.
In early June, there was an in-person meeting with new ANP Superintendent Kevin Schneider, West and a Department of the Interior lawyer representing the park. Schneider replaced longtime superintendent Sheridan Steele in January.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, Marine Patrol Col. Jon Cornish, Kanwit and Mendelson represented the state.
“We have communicated to the Park Service that we are deeply concerned about the park service’s position that commercial harvest of shellfish and any harvest of marine worms is prohibited within the park’s boundaries and potentially, on lands where they hold an ownership interest,” Mendelson said in an email Monday. “We believe this represents a fundamental change from how the park has previously enforced their regulations, if not in how they interpret them.”
According to park information officer John Kelly, the issue of who controls the flats, and exactly which flats ANP controls, is complicated. Federal regulations, he said, make it clear that the park controls whatever falls within its boundaries and that no commercial fishing of any kind is allowed within the park. Currently, he said, lawyers at the Department of the Interior are reviewing the many deeds that have transferred property to the park to determine how far its seaward boundaries may extend.
“The language is not always clear,” Kelly said, “so our jurisdiction is a question of determining what we own.” Another issue, he said, is determining the relationship between federal and state laws relating to the intertidal zone.
Mendelson said that DMR will “stay in touch” with the ANP leadership that, to date, has “only indicated at least for now they do not plan to enforce these restrictions on intertidal lands adjacent to property where the park holds a conservation easement.”
That isn’t persuasive to the worm diggers. They are worried about the park’s ownership of a number of islands and the impact of the no commercial harvesting policy on fisheries such as clam, periwinkle and mussel.
On Saturday, the worm diggers agreed that they would do what they could to bring their dispute with the park to public attention. A collection was taken to fund an improved website for the worm harvesters association and the diggers agreed to reach out to make the public aware that the park’s action would “affect families’ ability to put food on the table,” Harrington said.
If necessary, the worm diggers will gather on the flats en masse to bring their plight into the public eye.
“This will be a public relations disaster for the park,” Renwick said.