How Maine Fishermen Might Adapt to Warming Oceans

Bowdoin College hosted two speakers this week who are exploring ways that Mainers who earn their livelihoods from the sea might respond to a warming ocean and changing marine ecosystem.

The Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and scientists foresee a time when historically lucrative fisheries—like lobstering and clamming—are gone, replaced with fish species unfamiliar to us.

On Tuesday evening, field ecologist John Hagan spoke about his project to develop soft-shell clam farming in Maine. He was joined by Jonathan Taggart of Georgetown, Maine, who described his efforts to turn the invasive and problematic green crab into a sought-after food. (Originally invited speaker Marissa McMahan was not able to attend the event.)

Hagan, who also lives in Georgetown, stressed that in this time of climate uncertainty, he is focused on finding realistic solutions to changing conditions. “A lot of times you’ll hear talks about climate change and warming, and that is all big-picture stuff,” he said. “Sometimes you just want something practical to think about and to get your hands around. And clam farming is pretty practical.”

Hagan is the president of Manomet, a Plymouth, Mass.-based organization working to make the world more sustainable through the application of science. For the past three years, he has been collaborating with locals in Maine’s midcoast area to figure out whether wild clam harvesters could transition into clam farmers in a world altered by climate change.

Soft-shell clam flats are being decimated by a growing population of green crabs, an invasive species that likes warm water and is spreading throughout the world. The crabs wreak havoc on important eelgrass habitats, as well as eat mussels, scallops, and soft-shell clams. Clamming is Maine’s second most seafood industry, after lobster.

Starting in 2014, Hagan began working with Chris Warner, a clam harvester in Georgetown, Maine, to launch what he says is the first commercially viable clam farm in Maine. First, they seeded beds in three coves off of Georgetown, Brunswick, and Chebeague Island with thousands of baby clams. He and Warner secured nets around their seedlings to ward off the voracious green crabs. Then they waited. Clams require at least two years to grow to the legal size of two inches.

Hagan says that three seasons later, two of the three test farms have been successful, in that they successfully fended off green crabs and produced a decent number of clams. He added, however, that he has not yet come up with a way to protect clams from another predator, the milky ribbon worm, which is a growing problem in some coastal communities.

If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em?

Jonathan Taggart, an art conservator from Georgetown, then described his attempts to develop Maine’s green crabs into a marketable product. They’re a bit too small to tempt many diners. After traveling to Venice, Italy, for his conservatorship work, he returned home inspired by the traditional and “vibrant green crab fishery” he had seen in the watery city.

Tutored by a Venetian crab fisherman, Taggart learned the painstaking art of identifying when a young green crab is ready to molt, which is the only time the little crustacean can be enjoyably eaten. The signs are very subtle—small changes in coloration at the edge of its shell plates. “It’s helpful to have really strong reading glasses,” Taggert joked.

If Maine fishermen can learn the trick of identifying when crabs are several days from molting, they can sell them as a specialty food. Not only can crabs be cooked in the traditional Italian style— floured and fried—they also make good stock. “Green crab stock is loaded with glutamic acid and aspartic acid, which are two of the main umami chemicals,” Taggart said, referring to the taste that gives some food a certain savory satisfactoriness. “Anything you put green crab stock in is going to be more delicious because of those two ingredients.”

In addition, Taggart said Maine’s green crabs could be shipped down south where she-crab soup, which requires crab roe, is popular. But harvesters are no longer allowed to collect the main ingredient—Atlantic blue crab roe. “We can harvest the roe from our gals [up here] and help them have their she-crab soup again,” he said.

The green crab market, he concluded, is there, “ready to go. We just have to produce a product.”

The possibility of a future of clam farms and green crab soups have buoyed Hagan’s optimism. “We’re hopeful,” he said. “I hope we’ve given you some sense that we’re all going to survive climate change by eating soft-shell clams and green crabs.”

But he acknowledged that climate change will still create massive problems, along with a few business opportunities. “We still need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he warned.

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