Local clam diggers are struggling to keep their heads above water, after last year’s repeated closures for red tide and heavy rainfall forced some others right out of the business.
The owner of Marina’s Seafoods, located in Waldoboro, has been buying clams for more than 25 years. She reports that last year was one of the worst for clamming she’s ever seen.
“It’s had a tremendous effect on the harvesters, especially because for a lot of them, all they do is dig clams,” commented owner Margaret Brown, who has also been affected by the closures.
“I’ve had a 60 percent decrease in sales to the out-of-state market,” said Brown. “It seems to have affected the out-of-state market more than Maine. Some out-of-state restaurants have taken Maine clams right off their menus.”
Brown thinks she’ll have probably have to lower her prices this year, to get some of those customers back.
“I’ll have to sell them really cheap to entice them to take them again,” said Brown. “We’ll have to compete with Canada and Massachusetts and all of the other areas that are selling them.”
In the meantime, dealers like Brown are only paying $50/bushel for local clams, which is about $10 less per barrel than she paid for clams last year at this time.
“That’s because the demand isn’t there, because of the out-of-state market,” she said.
According to Brown, one of the most frustrating aspects of last year’s closures was the fact that clam flats remained closed on some weekends because there was no one available from the state to check the water.
“We were shut down eight times last year,” explained Brown “One time it was because of red tide but a lot of the time it was because they thought that we were going to have a lot of rainfall.”
Waldoboro residents Gordon and Neota Merry, who have been clamming most of their lives, were also hit hard by last year’s frequent and prolonged closures.
“With the red tide and the rain closures, we lost about 50 percent of our time,” said Gordon. “We made about half of what we made the year before.”
Gordon and Leota both agree that clamming is a hard way to make a living now, adding that many clammers haven’t returned to the flats this year. The two of them have decided to stick it out, though.
“I took a job for the telephone company once,” said Neota. “I missed being on the water though. I love everything on the water. I grew up on Swan’s Island.”
Gordon, who is 73, said that he has enjoyed having a flexible schedule and being his own boss. He has also enjoyed partaking of his catch, as have others in his neighborhood.
“Every Fourth of July we deep-fat fry [the clams]. I got a recipe from Outdoor Life. I use Sprite in the batter and I cook them just right. I can’t keep a fried clam. I have the whole neighborhood come up and eat them.”
The Merrys’ son Charles has followed in their footsteps but he plans to pick up some work in New Bedford for about a month to keep up with his bills. He said that last year he even resorted to selling things at the flea market in Woolwich, just to stay afloat.
Another Maine clam digger who has found it necessary to be versatile is Waldoboro resident Glenn Melvin, who started clamming about 30 years ago. Glenn said that he completed two years of college in computer sciences before he returned to clamming. He picked up odd jobs and repaired computers when the flats were closed down last year.
“I’ll do anything I can to make a buck,” said Glenn. “I pick up odd jobs or swing a hammer or repair a computer. A lot of [clammers] have packed up and left. There used to be 15-20 trucks per day. Now there are about five trucks per day. They can’t survive.”
Like the Merrys, Glenn has decided to stick it out because he enjoys the lifestyle and enjoys being his own boss.
“I don’t care for being told what to do,” shared Glenn. “I love the lifestyle. You can spend more time at home and do what you want to do. Right now a family lifestyle is a major priority.”
Glenn claims that, in Waldoboro, the flats close down for one inch of rainfall because of concerns about runoff. He agrees that the most frustrating part for clammers has been that the closures have lasted for so long, adding that sometimes there were overlapping closures that resulted in the flats being closed for an entire month.
State Rep. David Trahan (R-Waldoboro) recently brought these problems to the attention of Maine’s legislators, who approved a $250,000 increase for the Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) annual budget. Glenn said that he appreciates Trahan’s efforts, this past session, adding that Trahan was “a major player” in getting the budget increase approved.
DMR deputy commissioner David Etnier acknowledges that last year was a difficult year for everyone. Etnier said it was the worst on record for red tide and that Maine also had record rainfall last year. He confirmed that there were “dozens of closures, of varying lengths, in different geographic areas and a lot were overlapping.”
Etnier is hoping that the budget increase will enable the DMR to address any future problems more quickly. He confirmed that some of the money will be available immediately and that the bulk of the budget increase will be used to employ and equip more conservation aides to monitor Maine’s coastal waters.