Harpswell’s 2019 quahog harvest was more than 10 times larger than its 2010 quahog harvest. (HANNAH ANNIS/MAINE DEPARTMENT OF MARINE RESOURCES PHOTO)

Four applications for experimental aquaculture leases seek to explore methods for growing clams in Harpswell’s intertidal zone. If approved, the leases would be the first of their kind in Harpswell.

The Harpswell Board of Selectmen approved the applications Nov. 4. The applicants need permission from the town to lease intertidal lands, but must obtain final approval from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The DMR will schedule public hearings on the applications.

An experimental lease permits the holder to farm up to 4 acres for three years for the purpose of commercial or scientific research. Two of the three applicants currently have limited-purpose leases, which have caps of 400 square feet and one year.

David Wilson, of Harpswell, is applying for two experimental leases to grow quahogs, razor clams and soft-shell clams in Long Reach and Wilson Cove. He would grow the clams on the bottom and in nylon grow bags, using netting or wire to discourage predators. If the sites prove successful, he will apply for standard leases, which can run up to 20 years.

Wilson, a member of the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee, has three limited-purpose leases.

He told the Board of Selectmen that he has “become pretty defiant towards the loss of our shell stock and our other marine species” and hopes he “can learn something and implement it into our management plan.”

Neither Wilson’s leases nor the two others will interfere with traditional clam harvesting, as the lease sites are not on productive flats.

Wilson acknowledged concerns about the growth of aquaculture in Harpswell waters, but said the clam operations will differ from oyster farms because they will simulate wild conditions.

He said the clam leases have the potential to benefit all harvesters, as they will produce clam spawn that will enter the water column before settling elsewhere.

Chris Green, of Brunswick, wants to farm quahogs, razor clams and soft-shell clams north of White Island in Middle Bay, according to his application. Like Wilson, he would grow clams on the bottom and in bags, use netting or wire to fend off predators, and pursue a standard lease if the site pans out. He has one limited-purpose lease.

Scott Moody Jr., of Harpswell, wants to farm quahogs on the bottom of a cove between Great Island and Hopkins Island in the New Meadows River. His site would have no gear except for marker buoys at the corners of the lease and every 100 yards, a regulatory requirement. He has no other leases.

The applications include information on other activities in each area, such as recreational boating and striper fishing. One is near an oyster farm and others in areas frequented by pogy fishermen, but Wilson said the applicants’ methods and sites seek to minimize conflict with wild fisheries.

Kevin Johnson, chair of the Board of Selectmen, said that all four lease applications received unanimous support from the Marine Resources Committee.

Members of the Marine Resources Committee spoke about changes in the clam industry that have inspired harvesters to consider aquaculture.

Committee member Mark Leuchtenberger, of Cundy’s Harbor, said he put himself through college by digging clams on Great South Bay, off Long Island in New York. He attributed the decline of clam harvesting there to climate change.

Leuchtenberger noted that soft-shell clam landings in Harpswell have dropped by more than half over the last decade, from about 361,000 pounds in 2010 to 173,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, quahog landings have exploded, from about 35,000 pounds in 2010 to 350,000 in 2019, then 231,000 in 2020. Quahogs are also known as hard-shell clams.

The value of the quahog harvest in Harpswell has risen from about $32,000 in 2010 to $545,000 in 2019 and $405,000 in 2020, according to DMR data.

“Climate change is taking away but it’s also giving,” Leuchtenberger said.

Committee member Mary Ann Nahf, of Bailey Island, said that warming waters attract predators of soft-shell clams, like green crabs. Quahogs are more resistant to predators.

Leuchtenberger and Nahf said that other clam harvesters will learn from the applicants’ efforts.

“For many years, I think the harvesters were just worrying about trying to get ahead of green crabs and get ahead of milky ribbon worms,” Nahf said, referring to two clam predators. The experiments with clam aquaculture on inactive flats represent a positive, proactive effort, she said.

Harpswell Harbor Master and Marine Resources Administrator Paul Plummer said the leases will allow clammers to supplement their income from wild harvesting and take advantage of fluctuations in market prices by harvesting their leases when the price peaks. Plummer expects clam aquaculture to become more common, much as oyster aquaculture has in recent years.

A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.