Maine’s housing boom is making it harder for clams to get to the mudflats

It’s not easy being a climmer. The clam fishery – the state’s second most valuable fishery last year – faces increasing pressures due to climate change and is being set apart by the invasive green crab.

But a new problem has emerged over the past two years as the pandemic has sparked a real estate boom along the Maine coast: It’s increasingly difficult for clam fishermen to even get to intertidal flats to win their life.

Clams along the coast report that mud access points are rapidly disappearing as new people buy homes and are not interested in continuing old handshake agreements that allowed clams to cross their property to get out on the flats.

“If you’re on the coast, chances are you have really deep pockets,” said Kevin Oliver, a longtime clam fisherman from North Yarmouth. “If you have a nice mansion, you usually don’t want people walking through your property.”

While Harpswell Clams in Lubec said maintaining some of these deals has always been a battle – a spike in clams can often make the deal easier – many have been dropped in the past two years as properties come together. return. New owners are often hard to reach or don’t want the clams wandering around their yard.

Amanda Lyons, a clammer in Lubec, had about 20 hotspots she used before the pandemic. They ranged from public landing stages and trails to those ubiquitous informal agreements with local landowners.

She estimates she has lost around 10 since and has seen many no trespassing signs and barriers go up over the past two years.

“A lot of handshake agreements that have been in place for 20, 30 years aren’t there,” she said.

This loss of access has increased the barriers and overhead of access to fishing, which has always had one of the lowest barriers to entry. Unlike the state’s most valuable fishery, lobster fishing, clam fishing can be done without expensive equipment or large boats. Much of it is based on a desire to live a life around the tides and hunched over in the mud.

Private access points to public apartments are essential as they are often the shortest and easiest routes for clam fishermen to bring their sleds weighed down with hundreds of pounds of clams ashore.

But with those short channels cut off, Mike Pinkham, the clam keeper at Gouldsboro, said more and more clams have to resort to boats — often small skiffs or aluminum canoes — that allow them to travel from more remote access points to the apartments. most productive at a given time of year.

In southern Maine, many began using airboats, which sparked new problems with waterfront property owners over noise.

But using a boat can add several hours to a workday, as well as an increasing level of danger for year-round work. While that might not seem like a big deal to some, Pinkham likened it to regularly having to ride through a snowstorm to get to work.

“The ocean can change and rear its ugly head at any time,” he said. “They don’t have big lobster boats – they have 14-16 foot skiffs.”

It’s hard to say exactly how many accesses have been lost since the pandemic. There is no ironclad count of how many access points there were in the first place, as many of them were unwritten and some are outright secret.

But these informal agreements appear to be falling apart, prompting authorities to pursue more formal easements, conservation measures and potential tax breaks for landowners who allow access. Several communities are beginning to take inventory of access points that are still open and of those that have been lost.

Jessica Joyce, leader of the Casco Bay Regional Shellfish Task Force and member of the state’s Shellfish Advisory Board, said access has quickly become one of the biggest issues in the fishery and that it is working to map access points in the Casco Bay area. . Pinkham is do similar work in Gouldsboro and is teaming up with Maine Coast Heritage Trust to potentially preserve the access points.

There are also attempts to strengthen the access that still exists.

Harpswell fishermen plan to hold a landowner appreciation picnic later this summer, showering them with clam chowder, steamers and oysters. Paul Plummer, the city’s marine resources administrator, hopes this will allow clam harvesters and landowners alike to potentially break down barriers and stereotypes either may have.

“We hope this can really bridge the gap between these two sides,” he said.

The real estate bonanza along the coast has also prompted some communities to rethink how they regulate clam fishing. In Maine, cities can implement local clam rules, and clam licenses are often tied to residency.

But in Harpswell, there are fears the clams could be evicted from the coastal community, meaning they would also lose their chance to harvest town flats.

The city recently changed its rules that would allow resident pickers who have lived in the city for at least five years to retain their resident status even if they leave the city as long as they continue to carry out the conservation work already required and to maintain their license till date.

“Coastal gentrification makes it nearly impossible for these fishermen to stay in town,” Plummer said. “I think the town of Harpswell has recognized that there isn’t a lot of affordable housing or workforce housing in town.”

Diggers, who one described as the “stray cats” of the fishing world, aren’t entirely blameless when it comes to losing access. Custodians and clams have anecdotes of clams leaving trash or being rude to landlords, making landlords wonder if “no trespassing” signs are a good idea.

Dustin Black, a local clammer, poses with his faithful friend Ishi after a day of bloodworm harvesting at Raccoon Cove in Lamoine on Saturday, July 16, 2022. Black says he has seen historic hotspots that clammers have used to get to apartments disappear as coastal properties are swallowed up in the boiling housing market. Credit: Ethan Genter/BDN

Dustin Black, a clammer at Lamoine, wished they weren’t all painted with the same wide brush.

“There are diggers probably leaving trash and stuff like that,” Black said. “But most of us clean it when we see it.”

Access restoration efforts are all relatively new. Oliver, the North Yarmouth clam, said it was crucial to fix those fences with landowners now so the fishery could focus on its other daunting challenges.

“I support any effort to help maintain these hotspots,” he said. “They are more critical than ever as the price of real estate continues to rise.”

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