The Search Image

The Haraseeket Lunch in Freeport, Maine known by many tourists as a nice lunch spot a few miles down the road from L.L. Bean. Lines in front of the ordering window are always long, and you can’t throw an elbow without bumping into someone throwing back fried clams or eating ice cream. I had eaten my fair share of fried clams here before, while admiring the view of the harbor full of fishing and sailing boats. Today, I was here to meet Chad Coffin, a clam harvester in town. I found Chad getting out of his truck, and we ducked behind the restaurant and down the ramp to the dock where he keeps his boat. After showing me around a bit, we hopped in his skiff and slowly weaved our way toward the ocean. It was a glittering September morning. I ask Chad how he got into clamming, and he told me how his father had lobstered for awhile but eventually moved into clamming due to the shorter days and wilder crowd. Chad drags for European oysters in the winter and digs for clams in the summer, sometimes quahogs when the market for clams is “soft.” Although Maine’s iconic fishery is the lobster, clams are an historically important source of food and livelihood in Maine. Unlike lobstering, where fishermen catch lobsters in traps, clamming is more akin to hunting and gathering. Although many have boats, clam harvesters often walk out to the mud flats at low tide, pulling plastic sleds behind them, which they’ll drag back up loaded with clams in a few hours’ time.

We pick up speed and head around the corner to a little cove, just in sight of a home, but otherwise quiet. I follow Chad into the shallow water and we head up onto shore with buckets, rakes, and gloves. As I stand taking in the mud flat, trying to figure out what to do and where to start, Chad’s already bent down in the classic clammer pose, feet wide and bent at the waist, raking mud.

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I watch as he drives the rake, which has long metal prongs and a short handle, into the mud, wrestles with it a bit, and then pulls it back to reveal layers of clams. How does he know where to look?

“I call it the search image,” he says. “The mark in the sediment where the clams are. My search image is trained to see an imperfection, a certain type of hole–there’s a quahog over there, there’s one over there.” Chad hands me a rake, gestures a few feet away as if to say, give it a try, and as I bend down and start digging, he tells me why he’s starting to think that the search image of clammers is a problem. “Even if there’s a lot of clams, clammer’s search image on clams is much more honed than somebody that doesn’t do it. But because it’s honed on what they’re harvesting, they don’t see the bigger picture of things. So even if 90% of the flats are nonproductive, they still…I never forget this guy was at Little River in Freeport, and this guy—I like him a lot, great guy—and he was digging a strip of clams that was probably 10 feet from the shore to the bank and it extended 10 feet out in the sediment. 10 feet in a cove that’s 120 acres of mud. So he’s working this very small piece of mud, all along the bank on one side of the cove. At the end of the tide he’s got 250 pounds of clams, 5 bushels. ‘I don’t see why these guys are complaining that there isn’t any clams,’ he says to me. Well, the clams used to extend out like where he was clamming, another 350 yards or more, that’s where they always were and they just kept retreating and now they’re only on this little band. But he’s honed in on those, he knows where the 5 bushel is and so there’s no problem.”

 

Search Image. Video by Chad Coffin.

He went on to talk about how the old places people used to go reliably to dig clams are drying up, so clammers, who are used to moving around from flat to flat, are moving further up the river into the upper intertidal zone. Clams in the upper intertidal zone, which is further away from the river’s outlet to the ocean and under water less, are doing well. They take longer to mature, but they’re surviving.  Clams in the lower tidal zone in Freeport, and indeed throughout Casco Bay, are not doing so well. Freeport has long been a leader among clam communities in Maine. But since 2012, landings in Freeport have declined nearly 70% (DEI, 2018), a trend observed throughout Casco Bay.

 

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Source: Maine Department of Marine Resources landing data for Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, Yarmouth and Scarborough.

It’s a trend that has a lot of people worried. There is speculation that clams aren’t doing well because of ocean acidification, over-harvesting, or because invasive predators that like the warming water, green crabs, are eating them. Chad is on a research team from the Downeast Institute, led by Dr. Brian Beal, which is investigating what might be behind the declining clam population. The team uses recruitment boxes, which are small 1 x 2 foot rectangular boxes constructed using 2.5” wide wooden strapping and covered on all sides using different sized mesh screens ranging from 1.6. mm to 4.2mm. They stake empty boxes into the sediment in spring, and pull them out in November. What they have found is that most of the boxes are filled with clams still settling in high densities in the boxes, on mud flats deemed unproductive. This suggests that green crabs, not ocean acidification, are what is influencing clam populations, and it has implications for how to adapt clam harvesting to the new reality of climate change, perhaps less like hunting and gathering, and more like lobstering.

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Upper intertidal, Freeport. Photo by Chad Coffin.

We take a break for awhile and I focus on digging clams. My bucket is filling a lot less quickly than Chad’s, but it’s still filling. I move around, trying different spots, getting my boots stuck in the thick mud so badly one time that I have to ask Chad to yank me out. The mud is surprisingly dense, not so much soft as sticky. It’s a considerable workout to dig the rake in far enough to pull up a chunk that will reveal some clams for grabbing. I try to find a way to rub the sweat out of my eyes without getting mud all over my forehead and fail. I look around for the next lucky spot to dig and realize that the tide is nipping at my heels again. Time to move up.

The shoreline in Freeport has changed a lot in Chad’s lifetime. Most obvious, perhaps, is just that there aren’t nearly as many clams as there used to be. But there are other changes too. “The shoreline is far more eroded than it used to be. The eelgrass, nowadays, you can take a boat to the Harraseeket Wharf and motor to Osprey Island close to low tide. In the 90s if you didn’t leave 3 hours before low, forget it, because you couldn’t get an outboard from Goggins Ledges to anywhere near the shore 2 hours before the tide, the eelgrass was so thick. It was that thick, you couldn’t go anywhere, and that’s gone. It’s not that there isn’t any at all, but it used to be the ocean was green at low tide with eelgrass, all the way from the tip of Pound of Tea out here all the way to Bustins, Moshiers island, you literally could not get out there.

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Shoreline erosion due to burrowing green crabs. Photo by Chad Coffin.

That’s where everyone fished, in the grass. Growing up we hated hauling traps in the grass because the boat would be so dirty and you’d haul in so much grass it was a real pain.” I ask him if he has any pictures showing where the eelgrass used to be. “I didn’t appreciate it or have the knowledge or the wherewithal to take a picture. I never thought about a day when it wouldn’t be there.”

Besides clams and eelgrass, mussels have been disappearing in the bay. Chad describes how there used to be places they’d call mussel bars, anywhere where the gradient of sediment would rise would be full of mussels. “Now you can see the white of a bar—it’s shell—and that used to be black, with grass on top of it. Now there really isn’t any mussel bars, there’s just bars.” In addition to fewer clams, mussels, and less eelgrass, Chad has noticed that there are way more green crabs and mud snails. He shows me the eroded shoreline near where we are digging, and pulls up a section to reveal 20-30 crabs. In his experiments too, he says, “they’re under every cage.”

 

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Mud snails and green crabs. Photo and video by Chad Coffin.

Hours fly by. We drag our buckets to the boat and Chad throws the clams into mesh bags, rinsing them a couple of times in the deepening water before throwing them over to the side of the boat.

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We weave our way back around Little Flying Point, and the dull roar of the outboard motor quiets us. Back at the wharf, we load the clams into the back of Chad’s truck and head over to Topsham and the wholesaler. We talk about how the local economy has changed. “The shoreline is way more developed. It makes it difficult to get to places.” Clammers used to walk into flats, but as more and more homes have been built on the shore, that’s become harder to do. “The working waterfront just isn’t what is used to be here. The real estate’s so valuable now that it makes it difficult for the working class to be on it, to rent it, [there are] more people with boats, more pressure on moorings, longer waiting lists, it’s more expensive to find a slip in different harbors.”  He points out that the people that are buying along the shorefront “didn’t grow up around fishing traditions and maybe don’t fully appreciate or understand it. It may be impossible [for them] to do so.” But that change subtly influences things like access to the mud flats. “If you didn’t grow up around here when clamming was more common, fishing was more common, you don’t remember that it used to be commonplace for someone to walk around your yard to the mud. Now people see that and they get upset.”

At the wholesaler, we haul in the clams and weigh them, then walk around the front to get a receipt. We step into a dark entryway that leads to an open, bright room where 5 or 6 people are shucking clams and throwing them into huge plastic bins.

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We wait in line to record our catch, and Chad chats with the owner about Zodiac signs, one of his favorite topics. Back in Chad’s truck, I ask him about other changes he’s seen on land. “What I think that I remember about the winters growing up is it seems like we’ve had some stretches where, I think cold snaps may have been longer. I pay attention to the temperature quite a bit. It seems like it can get very cold still but it doesn’t seem to hang on as long and that’s caused a dramatic change, at least locally, as far as icing. Later he shows me a picture he took of the ice breaking up in the harbor, and talks about how it used to completely freeze over every year, but that doesn’t usually happen anymore.

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Thin ice. Photo by Chad Coffin.

“I don’t see the ice like we used to. It’s not that we never see it anymore. I was out there one day and that was the extent of the ice. I was dragging through it.  The tide came up in the morning and I was looking off the side of the boat. The ice isn’t that thick anymore. That was after a really bad cold snap. We did have some ice in 2014 but 2009 was the last year where it was thick ice for awhile. When it was cold the ice would form and you’d be done, you couldn’t work for sometimes a couple of months. I remember during my clamming career a guy driving a dirt bike in the channel, off the town dock. It would freeze.”

We talk about cycles for awhile, cycles in nature, and cycles in fisheries management. Something I’ve heard a lot of people say about climate change is that nature is always going through a cycle, and this is just another one. I ask him about that, and how Dr. Beal’s research speaks to that. “The research has revealed amazing discoveries about the system and that flies in the face of all the [talk about cycles]. What they usually say is mother nature, it’s a cycle, mother nature, every six or seven years that flat will come back, it’s just one of those flats, it’s been doing it for a long time, I know it. But we know why this flat came and went 6 years ago, because 9 years ago it was extremely cold.”

I ask him if he is concerned about climate change changing this place. “I think that climate change has already changed it. Really what place we’re at now is, we’re in a place where there’s just a few pockets of commercial fishing activity and how long they can hold on if it continues to warm, I don’t really know, but probably the warmer it is the more quickly they’ll disappear. I hate the term threat. It’s gone way beyond threat. What we’re really talking about being threatened is the last pockets of commercial activity in a lot of areas, that’s really what’s more at stake…to say that climate change threatens the Maine shellfish industry, as far as historical or traditional Maine shellfish industry, of harvesting clams or mussels or whatever, it’s more than threatened, it’s already been decimated. So when I read that it bugs me. Everyone writes the same thing. I… think that there is credence to using the term ‘threat’ but it’s really what it threatens. It can’t threaten what it’s already destroyed.”

 

 

 

 

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