This year is already shaping up to be one of the worst red tide seasons in recent memory.

The first red tide closure started March 24, the earliest on record. The impact red tide will have on the shellfish industry this year could be huge.

However, a state program is in place to allow for precise “surgical” closures of shellfish areas, rather than shutting down entire sections of the coast.

The problem: after next summer, this program runs out of funds. If it is shut down, the shellfish industry, which generates over $50 million annually, could suffer even more debilitating losses. (See “Successful red tide monitoring program could be cut back,” page 5.)

The Department of Marine Resources biotoxin monitoring program uses monitoring buoys, seasonal staff and year-round scientists to test shellfish beds for signs of red tide. The program’s basic budget is between $200,000 and $250,000 annually, according to Darcie Couture, program director.

With that budget, she pays for her position, two full-time scientists and four seasonal workers. These seasonal workers are cross-trained so they can pick up samples in the field and also extract these samples in the lab, saving valuable time for the scientists who do the testing.

With an additional $300,000, which the DMR has received in past years from the federal government, Couture is able to do more testing and monitoring with an additional 13 seasonal staff. During red tide season, the larger staff can test about 300 spots all along the coast on a weekly basis.

The expanded program can also test for several different species, depending on what is harvested in a region. Blue mussels, softshell clams, hen clams, razor clams, bay quahogs and American oysters can all be sampled on a weekly basis at specific spots along the coast, if necessary.

What does it mean to safely be able to do surgical closures? It minimizes the impact red tide has throughout the state.

During the 2008 red tide season, it meant that the Scarborough River, large areas in Casco Bay and a specific section of the upper New Meadows River were kept open while the surrounding areas were closed. Areas in Muscongus Bay and the upper Damariscotta River were also kept open. And it meant delaying a mussel closure in Cobscook Bay by several weeks and creating large exception areas for the harvesting of clams in all of the towns in Cobscook Bay.

This season, with early signs of red tide, the expanded program is more important than ever. Normally Couture does not hire seasonal staff until May. But, because of the early appearance of red tide, Couture said she and her full-time staff are working seven days a week to keep up.

Despite its success, the expanded biotoxin monitoring program could be shut down after the 2011 season. So far the program has survived using federal money. Disaster relief funds granted after the 2005 and 2008 red tides have kept this effort going, though it has not been easy. In the spring of 2009, state budget cuts almost shut down the entire program. It was only rescued after license fees were increased.

This doesn’t make sense. This is an industry that employs hundreds of coastal and island residents. And here is a relatively simple system that allows more accurate management, keeping Maine’s citizens safe and employed, and yet it has no regular source of funding. Without it, Maine will have to return to large-scale closures leaving fishermen on the bank. There’s got to be a way to come up with regular funding for this valuable program that keeps our fishermen fishing.