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Digging in to Rebuild Bay’s Clam Fishery

by Edward French


A Pembroke seafood buyer is hoping to encourage more people to dig clams around Cobscook Bay and to rebuild the fishery by eventually offering a good, stable price for the product throughout the year. Tim Sheehan of Gulf of Maine, Inc. (GOM) has already helped get more people into the industry by assisting them with getting started in the fishery. A number of the new clam diggers are women, mostly Passamaquoddy.

"It's a pretty decent profession," Sheehan says. "I can see more people getting into this. I think it's something to be proud of. Who makes $30 to $50 an hour?"

Philomena Look of Pleasant Point comes from a family that digs clams and fishes for eels, halibut and lobsters. "My aunts and uncles and mom have dug since we were kids," she says. Although she has harvested periwinkles and fished for urchins, this has been her first summer digging clams commercially. "It's nice out there. It's peaceful work," she says, noting there are not many job opportunities in the area. Sometimes seven or eight members of the family will all be digging together. She appreciates that Gulf of Maine stays open late, waiting for the diggers to come in.

For an Eastport woman who began clamming three years ago, Gulf of Maine provided the $230 for license fees, which she paid off over two weeks, making about $30 a tide. "If it hadn't been for him, I never would have started clamming," she says of Sheehan. "It's one of the best things anyone could have done for me." She goes clamming from March or April to the start of the wreath season in October. With five children, she says clamming "supports the family. I make more in a day than most do in a week."

She clams for perhaps three hours a day, then has the rest of the time to spend with her children. Although the tide determines when one can dig, it also allows for a flexible work schedule.

Paul Francis of Pleasant Point, who digs part-time and has been averaging 100 pounds a day, says,

"When the price is good in the summer, you can make some money."

An average digger may harvest 40 or more pounds a day, for perhaps three hours of work. Diggers are presently receiving about $2 a pound, and seasoned diggers may get 100 pounds in a day and earn $200 or $300 during the summer. Although the work is hard, Sheehan notes, "That's pretty damn good pay." A clammer who needs money can work every day of the week, digging two tides a day, using LED headlamps at night.

Sheehan points out that in any profession there are barriers to getting started. To become a clam digger ones needs a license, equipment and transportation. Gulf of Maine has been helping people get started by providing the measuring rings for the 2" minimum size, the Department of Marine Resources license applications and tide charts. The company also sends out group text messages about the price, the tides for the day and a list of shellfish closed areas, so that diggers can access the information on their cell phones. "We're using technology to optimize the harvester base in the fishery," he says.

Sometimes Gulf of Maine will buy the license for a new digger, and the digger will pay the company back.

"There's some risk," says Sheehan, "but we've gotten a lot of loyal followers that way." GOM also sells the rollers that hold the clams, also called kibbens or hods, having sold 200 during the past two years, and the clam hoe and gloves. They've even loaned out boats. If a new digger doesn't have the money, the company may give them the equipment initially. "Within a week he can have the gear paid off," Sheehan says. But he notes that some people have child support payments or debts to pay off and "for some it takes all summer to pay us back."

The company has loaned out about $5,000 this year, with the harvesters having paid back all but $500 so far.

With the company providing assistance, the number of diggers who are selling to Gulf of Maine has grown from three dozen last year to about 130 this past summer. Gulf of Maine has been buying 50 to 60 bushels a day during the summer, paying out perhaps $5,000 each day into the community, seven days a week.

Rebuilding the Industry

Sheehan notes that there are different types of people who clam - year-round diggers, commercial fishermen who dig when they're not fishing, students who dig in the summer, and "pleasure diggers," who just work in the summer when the price is high.

While most harvesters don't clam year-round, Sheehan is trying to build a following of diggers so that he can continue buying throughout the year. "We're trying to come up with a way to buy and sell at a set price on a year-round basis," he says. "We want to pay $2 a pound year-round," so that harvesters would dig every month, knowing they could plan their family's budget on a definite price. Because the price goes up and down, the industry ends up attracting transient diggers. Sheehan believes a value-added product that's frozen and packaged is needed to provide a stable price.

"I'd like it to be more fair for the harvesters," he says, noting that steamers may sell for $6 a pound in the city but the digger only may earn $1 a pound. "It's a huge discrepancy," he says. "I'd rather have 50 good diggers and give them a guaranteed price with a value-added product to rebuild the industry."

The best price is from May to October, and then it drops to about $1 a pound. "Every winter it's been getting a little better," he says, noting it used to go down to 80 cents a pound.

Sheehan understands that there used to be hundreds of clam diggers around Cobscook Bay, with clammers able to dig a barrel or two in a tide. But the clam population has declined in this area, although it's still strong in some other areas of the coast.

He notes that having more clammers dig the flats helps the seed clams settle in better.

"With the hard-packed mud a little clam can't set up shop there."

Of those who dig clams, Sheehan observes, "It's a community of harvesters." The clammers all help each other with boats and rides. The atmosphere at the seafood buying station in Pembroke is "clean and friendly," he says, with a family atmosphere. The Sheehans give a scratch-off lottery ticket to everyone who brings in a bushel of clams, which he says is

"a built-in bonus" and "adds to the fun."

A sign on the wall at Gulf of Maine sums up the company's philosophy:

"Sell locally and help us build a business that offers better prices and local jobs."

Published by The Quoddy Tides