2013-05-01 / Front Page

Council to ponder clam, crab projects

Rift emerges over health of Freeport shellfish beds
BY JT LEONARD Times Record Staff
FREEPORT

Two separate but related projects to maintain the health of Freeport’s shellfish beds have spurred tensions between clam diggers and town officials.

A special Town Council meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday to resolve the issue.

For more than a year, the town gradually has worked its way toward a plan to check the proliferation of European green crabs that have negatively affected Freeport’s softshell clam population.

But one shellfish commission member already has resigned in frustration, complaining it’s taking too long to finalize and implement a multi-year solution that could save the town’s declining — but still strong — industry.

Chad Coffin, a former president of the Maine Clammers Association, submitted his resignation to the council last week. He said he was frustrated with the council’s repeated delays.

On April 23, councilors voted 4-3 against earmarking $67,000 for materials and contracts meant to eradicate the bad crabs and to study and conserve the shellfishery for one year, in a project that may have to be done over a two- to five-year period.

Councilors voting against the item defended their actions saying that they wouldn’t spend that much money without a firmer idea of what would be the end result, or what it ultimately would cost.

“It’s a complex issue,” Town Manager Peter Joseph said.

“The discussion (Thursday) hopefully will be to figure out how those two fit together and to determine the amount of spending,” he said. “A $60,000 project looks a lot different than a $120,000 project.”

Originally, there were separate plans: One was to study and restore the health of town shellfish beds; the second would undertake the green crabs’ eradication.

Brunswick firm Resources Access International LLC was hired to do the two-year conservation study, and $40,000 in municipal and state matching funds were earmarked to pay for the first year’s work.

But the two plans became entangled when the issue of fencing — and the costs associated with its installation and permitting required by the Army Corps of Engineers — forced a merger.

Mesh fences and traps would be used to keep the crabs out of the clams’ habitats. But to install them also required permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Other species, such as the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, have to be considered when putting up the nets, Joseph said.

He submitted permit applications April 24 but has not yet received an answer.

If the permits aren’t awarded soon, the schedule could disrupt the clammers’ season.

It’s an issue of timing complicated by procedure: Digging season intensifies in June and peaks in August. Clammers right now are limited to digging only four days each week, which allows them two days that could be used to satisfy conservation requirements imposed by the state to maintain their licenses.

But the councilors, too, are restricted by municipal policy: They can’t simply approve a two-year, $120,000 project and gamble that, in Fiscal Year 2014, the town budget will support it.

The council will cast a nonbinding vote Thursday as a straw poll to measure support for the projects’ inclusion in the town’s capital budget.

A vote on the capital budget is scheduled for June 4.

jtleonard@timesrecord.com

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