FREEPORT – The Freeport Town Council will fund a study of the town’s depleting shellfish stocks – a historic first in Maine marine research and a potential life preserver for the struggling clamming community.
The May 2 decision to keep a previously appropriated $67,000 in the fiscal year 2014 budget comes after months of debate among councilors to either scale down the scope of the study or kill it altogether. That scenario drew the ire of some of Freeport’s 60 or so clammers, including Shellfish Commission member Chad Coffin, who resigned last week citing frustration over the slow action of the council to move the project forward.
Coffin did not return calls for comment by the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline Monday.
While the $67,000 has been given the green light, the council capped initial spending at $35,000, with instructions for the Shellfish Commission to return to the council for additional funding if the need arose.
The project, overseen by the Shellfish Commission, will study what is causing the rapid decline of soft-shell clam stocks in Freeport.
Both clammers and scientists are pointing to an invasive species known as European green crabs as the probable culprit for the decline.
According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the number of green crabs has risen in recent years as the number of predators who eat the crabs has decreased.
The crabs prey on the young of bi-valves and have been implicated in the destruction of other shellfish stocks in New England and Canada, according sciencemag.org.
“It eats about everything,” said marine ecologist Mark Bertness of Brown University on the website. “In terms of biodiversity, it’s hell on wheels.”
In 2012, the Freeport Town Council earmarked $100,000 to study the clam flats and decide on a course of action.
The town is believed to be the only Maine municipality to be spearheading such an effort, and the project has been hailed by Brian Beal, a biologist and professor at the University of Maine at Machias, who specializes in shellfish research, as groundbreaking. Beal will be a consultant on the project.
“This is historic in its scope and I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” said Beal Monday from his office in Machias. “I am unaware of any other town in the last 30 years that has been willing to support a large-scale look at predation rates by green crabs.”
The project will start in mid May and end in November, said Beal. He will work closely with both clammers and the Shellfish Commission, who will be trapping and collecting the crabs for research and deterrent purposes. Special fences will also be placed around the clam flats in an effort to keep the predatory crabs away from the baby clams, said Beal.
Some members of the Town Council had expressed concern about the town’s potential failure to procure a permit from U.S Army Corps of Engineers, which is needed to install the fencing. Without the permit, the size and scope of the project would have to be scaled back and could result in paid-for but unused equipment.
Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph indicated to the seven-member council during the May 2 meeting that he needed to “be able to start writing checks,” and could not do so until the council approved all or a portion of the $67,000.
“I think this is a good plan going forward and the council recognized the importance of this study,” said Councilor Sarah Tracey, who represents District 2 in Freeport.
Beal said the study was a clammer-driven initiative and he feels honored to be part of the largest such study to take place in Maine or New England.
“If we can deter crab predation, we can maintain the growth of soft-shell crabs. It has been done before but never on this scale,” said Beal.