cTentacles have long been a source of food and income for a variety of people in Maine: Wabanaki natives, commercial harvesters, or anyone willing to dig in the mud. But its population is declining sharply.
who produce 62% From the soft oysters of the nation. they are The second most valuable in economic terms The state’s fisheries are behind the lobster and sustain people’s livelihoods up and down the coast.
But since 1980 the number of oysters harvested has declined about 75%primarily because of green crab (Carcinos Minas), which feed on soft snails. These invasive predators, who first came to the Gulf of Maine on ships in the 19th century, have seen their populations bubble The climate crisis is causing water temperatures to rise, creating the perfect conditions for green crabs to grow.
Research conducted by the Institute Down East and the University of Maine in Macias in 2018 found that green crabs were fed to the point that they More than 99% of young oysters died before reaching the age of majority. Clam hunters in the state are concerned not only with the loss of income, but also the loss of lifestyle.
Oyster fish—mounds of shell scraps scattered along the Maine coast that can be up to one meter thick—show that the Wabanaki people have been harvesting and incubating clams, as well as mussels and oysters, thousands of years ago. The Passamaquoddy, one of the four Federally Recognized Native American tribes in Maine and collectively known as the Wabanaki, is called Bar Harbor, in Minescatic Acadia National Park, which translates to “clam digging place.”
For the Passamaquoddy people, the decline of oysters threatens their income and traditions. “You just don’t see the exuberance you’re used to,” says Marvin Kling, environmental director at Passamaquoddy Nation.
It also raises questions about access to land. While they have harvest rights on their reserves, they do not have access to the nearby mudflats where their ancestors harvested. “We belong to the environment and when we are disconnected from the environment, we lose the value that connection brings, the ability to produce what you want and enjoy the fruits of your labour,” says Kling.
Others in Maine are concerned about the loss of livelihoods that provide them with independence and resilience.
Four years ago, Cathy Pickard, a newly single mother of three young children in Lamoine, Maine, was looking for a way to support herself that would fit the demands of parenting. I found it in the bays of Frenchman’s Bay, when I picked up a shovel of clam. “It changes life,” she says.
Clam harvesting is partially accessible due to the low cost of entry. Harvesters wear long rubber boots, take a metal shovel and bag, and walk or boat to the mudflats at low tide. They search for slight depressions in the mud, then dig up their rakes, stir the mud, and begin to pick up oysters. Says Sarah Randall, associate director of the nonprofit Downst Institute for Marine Research, who has been studying oysters and green crabs for nearly a decade.
However, oysters are remarkably hard to find these days, says Pickard. “When I started, you could just jump in a canoe and go anywhere and find oysters,” she says. She has to work harder and longer to get fewer oysters. “Now, I’d say there’s probably half a clam. Nothing has changed.”
Randall is one of many researchers trying to find a way to stop this decline. On a sunny day in early September, she made her way through the mud toward 16 small bins in Scarborough, Maine. They form a watch station run by a collaboration between the Down East Institute and state, local, and tribal oyster managers and oyster pickers. The aim is to measure the number of oyster pups that settle outside the water column on the mudflats at 25 sites along the coast, including two in the Basamakudy region.
The box frames are made of wood, covered with a mesh top and bottom with small holes, allowing baby oysters to enter the boxes as they settle from the water column to grow into an adult. Because oysters feed on phytoplankton and other organic matter that floats in the water, the boxes allow them to eat and grow protected from green crabs. Randall and her team compare the number of clams inside the boxes to the number of clams that live unprotected in the mud next door.
Her team found that baby oysters grow well inside the boxes when predators are excluded, but 99% of the baby oysters outside the boxes did not survive their first year. Randall says their work has shown that, rather than ocean acidification or a lack of young oysters, predators prevent oysters from surviving their first year of life.
Projects like these are popping up along the coast, where scientists, townspeople and harvesters collaborate to understand what’s driving the oyster’s decline and how to adapt to it. The data shows that we have to adapt our management and methods to the rising water temperature. This is our only chance to conserve the fishery,” Randall says. She added that traditional harvesting methods that simply allow for wild oyster gathering may be a thing of the past.
But some clam collectors are concerned about the consequences. Managing clam fisheries adaptively, as research increasingly indicates is necessary, would include more labor-intensive measures to protect clams from predators – for example, seeding some mudflats with clams, installing predator protection, or restricting harvest in some places . For some, these activities are less like independent gathering and more like aquaculture. “There are people who don’t want to hear it…Change is hard,” says Randall, who has collaborated with reapers across the state.
But for Joe Porada, a 39-year-old oyster harvester and a collaborator with the Downst Institute, there is hope in these adjustments. Although the state of the global climate can feel frustrating, “like an unstoppable train,” he says, it is “seeing rejuvenation and some success” on the apartments.
Porada says these adaptations may not slow the climate crisis, but they can address local problems in a tangible and encouraging way. “It looks like we need to do something about it and try to do something about it.”
Whatever happens, Cathy Pickard knows she’s found the industry she wants to stay in. “It’s like my work is my time. I love clams. I love being on the water. For me, that’s all I’ll probably do for the rest of my life.”