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Clammers, an Independent Lot, Are at Red Tide's Mercy

A rash of toxic algae has contaminated shellfish for weeks, crippling the industry and costing the state millions of dollars.

June 28, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

FREEPORT, Maine — Every day this time of year, Vicki Cisco and Herbert Moon leave home at dawn and take their 14-foot aluminum skiff to a nearby tidal flat. Starting when the tide is lowest, they squat in the mud for six hours, digging for clams with gloved hands and pitchforks adapted to serve as hoes.

In a normal season, the couple bring in $300 to $400 a day, enough to see them through the harsh winter months. But a red tide that is now in its seventh week has put a stop to clamming on two-thirds of Maine's coastline.

Cisco and Moon are two months behind on their mortgage. They have borrowed money from relatives and made fruitless appeals for help to state and local agencies.

"This is killing us," Cisco said. "If we don't lose this house, it will be a miracle."

Maine officials say the influx of toxic algae is taking at least a $2-million bite every week out of the state's shellfish industry, which brings in $20 million per year. Clamming is a year-round enterprise, but demand is heaviest in late spring and summer.

This is the most severe red tide in decades, prompting Gov. John E. Baldacci to declare an economic emergency for the shellfish industry.

Scientists say the huge bloom of an algae species called Alexandrium fundyense has produced some of the highest levels of toxicity in shellfish in more than 30 years.

According to marine experts, the algae could start dissipating as early as next week. But for those whose incomes depend on the four- to five-month-long shellfish season, the losses could be long-term.

"In a coastal economy that doesn't have a lot of other alternatives, this is a very prolonged disaster," said Deirdre Gilbert, assistant to the director of the state Department of Marine Resources.

The red tide is caused by a single-cell phytoplankton that in masses gives the ocean a rosy hue, said David Townsend, chairman of the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine.

High concentrations of this algae normally occur off the Maine coast in May and June, Townsend said.

But an unusual sequence of storms in May drove the algae closer to shore, where it multiplied. The organism does not harm the clams, oysters and mussels in which it concentrates. But the toxin can produce numbness, tingling, dizziness and nausea in humans who eat the shellfish. In high doses, the poison can be fatal.

The red tide has scared many tourists away from one of Maine's signature institutions, the clam shack. Sporting picnic tables on concrete patios, these establishments dot the highways and small roads along the state's coastline.

Travelers typically flock to devour mounds of fried clams buried in tartar sauce and served up with fries and cole slaw on soggy paper plates.

But Brad Davis, manager of Bayley's Seafood in Scarborough, said the demand this year had plummeted. Like many other restaurants, Bayley's has posted notices saying it is using uncontaminated clams from Nova Scotia and Maryland to prepare delicacies such as clam cakes.

"But a lot of people seem to be apprehensive about the clams, even when we tell them they're not from around here," Davis said.

The red tide has spread as far south as Cape Cod, crippling the shellfish trade in Massachusetts as well. On Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Gov. Mitt Romney's request for disaster aid for shell fishermen.

The U.S. Commerce Department has declared a disaster in the Maine shellfish industry, paving the way for emergency funds and Small Business Administration loans for fishermen.

The state has set up a hotline to provide information for a breed of workers that usually goes out of its way to avoid dealing with the government. Because shell fishermen are considered independent contractors -- for the most part, they deal directly with wholesalers, who in turn make same-day transactions with restaurant owners -- they are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Maine has about 1,300 state licensed shell fishermen, who also must purchase town permits to harvest clams, oysters and mussels. A state license costs $115 annually. Local permits can cost twice that amount.

Clammers watch for large holes -- indicating large clams -- as they dig in tidal flats. Clam by clam, most throw the catch onto plastic sleds that they drag with them through the mud. When they return to their skiffs, they place the clams in onion bags made of mesh. They hang the bags from the side of their boats, so the clams are washed as the fishermen return home.

Before the red tide, shellfish wholesalers were paying $75 to $85 per gallon of clams -- about the same price as last year. Some clammers freely admit they do not file tax returns because there is no record of their incomes.

"Clamming is a strange industry," said Chad Coffin, 34. "When I was a kid, I thought clamming was almost like being an outlaw. There is no real overhead in it. And it is a pretty cool place to be, on the shores of this community. It is a beautiful area."

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