Exploring the management of soft-shell clams in Maine

by Elisabeth A. Maxwell

Before I ever thought of attending the University of Maine, I knew about the iconic New England Clam Chowder. It was a menu item that seemed a staple for any seafood restaurant, regardless of which coastline I visited. Back then, I never would have thought that one day I would be learning about the management system that makes the famous clam chowder possible.

image of graduate student Elisabeth MaxwellI am in my second year in the dual master’s degree program through the School of Marine Sciences. My biology research is focused on the influence of calcium carbonate buffer to the settlement of soft-shell clam larvae on intertidal mudflats. Conveniently, my policy research is also related to the soft-shell clam and is an investigation of the management structure throughout Maine. With a background in biology, I expected the marine biology portion of my work to be more engaging. But when I started traveling along the coast of Maine to interview shellfish harvesters, I found myself equally interested in the policy component. To date, I have visited more than 20 different towns, interviewing shellfish stakeholders, attending meetings, participating in Maine Department of Marine Resources clam surveys and generally having a wonderful time! It has been an amazing opportunity to submerse myself into a new fishery and learn about the idiosyncrasies that make it unique.

clam harvester measuring clams in mud flatMy advisor, Dr. Teresa Johnson, and I are studying the management process for soft-shell clam resources. The clam fishery is set up as a co-management system with roles and responsibilities for the municipalities as well as the Department of Marine Resources. Each town maintains authority to limit entry, charge user fees, organize conservation projects, and establish enforcement for both local and statewide regulations. The DMR retains authority over issues related to public health such as monitoring for pollution or toxins. This arrangement allows each town to evaluate their unique needs and build a program that is efficient for their situation. Meanwhile the DMR provides support when possible and appropriate and works to ensure people and the resource stays healthy.

I am interested in learning how local-scale communities can build sustainable harvest programs to meet community needs. Each town is different (goals, capacity, resource-dependence, etc.) so it does not make sense to have a region- or state-wide formula to which every town must adhere. Allowing each community to build a unique management structure provides opportunity to account for these differences and promote sustainable harvest.

I will continue to travel to towns along the coast and learn about how they are unique and similar. I am looking forward to learning more about shellfish management and learning about successful community-based, co-management programs.

Elisabeth Maxwell is a Maine Sea Grant Scholar.