It ain’t easy being a clammer. The soft-shell clam fishery — the second most valuable fishery in the state last year — is facing increasing pressures under climate change and is being picked apart by the invasive green crab.
But a new problem has emerged in the past two years as the pandemic ignited a real estate explosion along the Maine coast: it’s increasingly hard for clam diggers to even get to the intertidal flats to make their living.
Clammers up and down the coast report that access points to the mud are rapidly disappearing as new people buy up homes and aren’t interested in continuing old handshake agreements that allowed clammers to cross their property to get out onto the flats.
“If you’re on the coast, chances are you have very deep pockets,” said Kevin Oliver, a long-time clam digger from North Yarmouth. “If you have a nice mansion, you typically don’t want people walking across your property.”
While clammers from Harpswell to Lubec said it’s always been a battle to keep some of these agreements going — a peck of clams can often smooth the deal — many have fallen by the wayside in the past two years as properties flip. New owners are often either hard to reach or aren’t interested in having clammers traipse across their yards.
Amanda Lyons, a clammer in Lubec, had about two dozen access points she used before the pandemic. They ranged from public landings and trails to these ubiquitous informal deals with local property owners.
She estimates she’s lost about 10 since then and has seen many “no trespassing” signs and gates go up in the past two years.
“A lot of handshake agreements that have been in place for 20, 30 years are not there,” she said.
This loss of access has increased obstacles and the overhead cost of getting into the fishery, which historically always had one of the lowest bars of entry. Unlike the state’s most valuable fishery, lobstering, clamming can be done without expensive equipment and large boats. It largely relies on a willingness to live a life around the tides and hunched over in the mud.
Private access points to the public flats are essential because they’re often the shortest and easiest routes for clammers to bring their sleds weighed down with hundreds of pounds of clams ashore.
But with these short channels being cut off, Mike Pinkham, the clam warden in Gouldsboro, said more clammers are having to resort to using boats — often small aluminum skiffs or canoes — which allow them to travel from farther access points to whatever flats are the most productive at a given time of year.
In southern Maine, many have started using airboats, which have sparked new problems with shoreline property owners over noise.
But the use of a boat can add several hours onto a day’s work, as well as an increasing level of danger to the year-round job. While it may not seem like a big deal to some, Pinkham compared it with regularly having to drive through a blizzard to get to work.
“The ocean can change and rear its ugly head at any time,” he said. “They don’t have big lobster boats — they have 14 to 16 foot skiffs.”
It’s hard to say exactly how much access has been lost since the pandemic. There is no ironclad count of how many access points there were in the first place since many of these were not written down and some are downright secrets.
But these informal agreements seem to be falling by the wayside, prompting officials to pursue more formal easements, conservation measures and potential tax breaks for landowners who allow access. Several communities are starting to take inventory of what access points are still open and what has been lost.
Jessica Joyce, a leader of the Casco Bay Regional Shellfish Working Group and a member of the state’s shellfish advisory council, said access has quickly become one of the largest issues in the fishery, and she’s been working to map access points in the Casco Bay region. Pinkham is doing similar work in Gouldsboro and is teaming up with Maine Coast Heritage Trust to potentially preserve access points.
There are also attempts to reinforce the access that’s still around.
Harvesters in Harpswell plan to hold a landowners appreciation picnic later this summer, showering them with clam chowder, steamers and oysters. Paul Plummer, the town’s marine resources administrator, hopes it allows clammers and landowners to potentially break down barriers and stereotypes that either may have.
“We hope it can really bridge the gap from those two parties,” he said.
The real estate bonanza along the coast has also spurred some communities to rethink how they regulate the clam fishery. In Maine, towns can implement local rules on clamming and clam licenses are often tied to residency.
But in Harpswell, there’s a fear that clammers may be pushed out of the coastal community, meaning they would also lose their chance to harvest the town’s flats.
The town recently changed its rules that would allow resident harvesters who lived in town for at least five years to keep their resident status even if they moved out of town as long as they continue to do the already required conservation work and keep their license up to date.
“Coastal gentrification is making it next to impossible for those harvesters to stay in town,” Plummer said. “I think the town of Harpswell recognized there isn’t a lot of affordable housing or workforce housing in town.”
Diggers, who one clammer described as the “stray cats” of the fishing world, aren’t entirely blameless when it comes to the loss of access. Wardens and clammers have anecdotes of clammers leaving trash behind or being rude to homeowners, making the property owners wonder if the “no trespassing” signs are a good idea.
Dustin Black, a clammer in Lamoine, wished that they wouldn’t all get painted with the same broad brush.
“There’s some diggers that probably are leaving trash and stuff like that,” Black said. “But most of us clean it up when we see it.”
The access restoration efforts are all fairly new. Oliver, the North Yarmouth clammer, said it’s crucial to mend these fences with landowners now so the fishery can focus on its other daunting challenges.
“I support any effort to help maintain these access points,” he said. “They’re more critical than ever as the price of property keeps going up.”