Forum promotes team effort to keep flats open
FREEPORT — Municipal and state officials from Kittery to Waldoboro met Wednesday to discuss how protecting the health of coastal clam flats should involve more than just local shellfish harvesters.
A total of 25 municipalities were represented on the panel organized by the Maine State Planning Office to bring experts in agriculture, wastewater treatment and marine resources together to talk about collaboration between state agencies and local codes enforcement and planning officials to protect shellfish flats that produce around $12 million annually in Maine.
According to a 2010 report by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, shellfish flat closures increased sharply from 2007 to 2008, doubling the number of acres prohibited for harvesting from 20,441 acres to 47,421 acres.
Another increase in closures in 2009 brought a total of 53,356 acres into prohibited status.
On Wednesday, panelists included representatives from the state’s departments of Marine Resources ( DMR), Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Environmental Protection (DEP), as well as nonprofit organizations and shellfish industry representatives.
Denis- Marc Nault, who manages the Department of Marine Resources shellfish management program for 110 coastal towns alongside one other biologist, said during Wednesday’s panel that, at the local level, the job of municipal shellfish wardens is becoming broader, including not only law enforcement but closer monitoring of ecosystems and “hot spots,” where bacterial pollution might reach a level making clams harvested from those waters dangerous to eat.
Strategies for managing shellfish waters, Nault said, are also changing in some locations.
For a system in which each town or city monitors shellfish waters with a local shellfish warden, Nault said, some municipalities are forming inter-local agreements to collectively manage shared waters, as is the case in Frenchman Bay near Bar Harbor.
Georgetown shellfish warden Jon Hentz said his job description encompasses a broad range of duties, but that those descriptions vary from town to town. Hentz also serves as shellfish warden for Wiscasset, Arrowsic and Woolwich.
His first priority, Hentz said, is protecting public health, which he does by closely monitoring closed flats for illegal digging. He also works with local codes enforcement officers to keep tabs on other onshore concerns that might ultimately close digging grounds.
Wednesday’s forum highlighted ways in which state agriculture and health and human services officials are collaborating to prevent problems such as farmland runoff and septic tank malfunctions that can cause closures of clam flats.
Keeping the flats open is one of the keys to keeping a growing area productive, according to Freeport resident Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association.
Regular raking of the mud in the flats creates eddies and divots in the mud that Coffin said increases clam production.
Nault said that brief or seasonal closures of a flat will not affect clam production in the long run, but that closures of three to five years can put a devastating halt to clam production.
“It could take 15-plus years to turn that flat over and make it sustainable,” Nault said.
Around 55 percent of Maine homes — 300,000 or so — use septic systems that require regular maintenance to function properly, according to Mark Hyland, the state site evaluator for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Keeping track of that many systems, which he said require replacement every 30 years or so and maintenance every three years, often requires collaboration with local authorities, who are in the position to provide tips on systems that might be malfunctioning.
In some cases, the indication of a problematic septic system can come in the form of a clam flat closure, as happened at Brookings Bay in Woolwich in 2008.
Ruth Indrick, a former AmeriCorps volunteer with the state’s Department of Marine Resources, said during Wednesday’s panel that sanitary surveys of the closed flat allowed local plumbing officials to identify a septic tank malfunction that was, in part, responsible for the closure.
The sampling, at times, required volunteer support, Indrick said, and eventually led to making a more targeted closure of the affected flats.
In addition to malfunctioning septic systems, Hyland said, improperly installed systems also cause problems for water quality.
“In coastal areas, you might see people separate their septic and laundry system,” Hyland said.
That can create water quality problems, Hyland said, when laundry runoff makes its way unfettered into waterways.
In other coastal areas where sewer systems or septic tanks were not installed, Tim MacMillan of the state DEP said work is being done to replace the “overboard discharge systems” that filter wastewater before it goes directly into a waterway.
Nault estimated that there are roughly 700 such systems in the state.
MacMillan said that a program through his department — which received $500,000 in funding in 2010 — is focused on replacing those systems with cleaner septic systems.
According to the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership study, the town of Harpswell was able to eliminate 37 overboard discharge systems between 2001 and 2009 by using funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
Matthew Randall, a compliance officer for the Maine Department of Agriculture, spoke Wednesday about the impact farmland management can have on clam flats.
Just years ago in Freeport, Randall said, contamination problems emerged on flats adjacent to the Wolfe’s Neck Farm, sparking a debate he said “was billed as cows vs. clams.”
Ultimately, Randall said, that opposition grew from misunderstanding and an idea that what was good for clams was not necessarily bad for farmland, and vice versa.
“In the end, the town said they embrace open space and clams and want to keep both,” Randall said.
In 2009, Randall said, an increased setback and more vegetation along the coastline has led to two years of improved water quality in the Casco Bay flats adjacent to the farm.
Location played a part in contamination problems at Wolfe’s Neck, Randall said, where 600 acres of farmland are situated on property adjacent to the water, but farm size “isn’t the only indicator of a problem.”
“We did go down the path of seeing some of the one- and two- animal operations and check in with those folks,” Randall said.
With great variation in farmland size and practice, Department of Agriculture soil scientist David Rocque said it is difficult for the department to put specific rules and regulations into place for all farms, but a number of best practices guide farmland waste and feed management.
LaMarr Clannon of the Portland-based Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials spoke Wednesday on other ways that town planners and codes enforcement officials might think about reducing runoff that could negatively affect water quality.
Using low-impact development practices and recent innovations such as porous pavement can help to reduce the impact of runoff from urban and residential areas on waterways, Clannon said, while also reducing development costs.
Because of their lower cost, the practices are taking hold in towns with ordinances requiring developers to consider low- impact building methods, Clannon said.
“What we’re seeing in York is that there is a lot more lowimpact development because it makes sense from a financial and a stormwater point of view,” Clannon said.
Use of porous pavement and other methods can reduce the need for more costly stormwater management systems, Clannon said.
But private residences should still raise the largest concern for towns, Clannon said.
“If we’re ignoring stormwater coming off of singlefamily houses,” Clannon said, “we’re ignoring most of the stormwater problem in our communities.”
More information about recommendations on stormwater management for municipalities can be found at Clannon’s organization’s website at mainenemo.org.
On Friday, the same slate of 23 speakers and panelists will travel to Ellsworth City Hall for a similar forum hosted by the State Planning Office.
Julia Noordyk of the State Planning Office said copies of the informational materials provided Wednesday will be posted to the office’s website at maine.gov/spo.