Clam Cam offers glimpse of lives, challenges of harvesters

Bridie McGreavy grew up in Brownfield, Maine, but until arriving at the University of Maine in 2010, she hadn’t been on a clam flat.

Walking on exposed intertidal mud for the first time, she says, was like entering a “world that was so foreign, so beautiful.”

Now, thanks to the Clam Cam — which opens a window into the lives of Maine clam harvesters — others can experience that world, too.

McGreavy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism. She’s collaborating on the project with Tyler Quiring, a Ph.D. student in communication, and Carter Hathaway, a 2017 UMaine graduate with a bachelor’s in journalism.

A goal, says McGreavy, is to share the unique way of life and some of the pressing challenges of people who harvest clams for a living on the coast of Maine.

The team uses ethnographic methods (detailed, in-depth descriptions of people’s daily life and practices) and digital media in its research to help foster communities’ resiliency and sustainability.

After a harvester suggested the public could learn about his livelihood by vicariously digging clams, McGreavy’s team supplied GoPros for harvesters — from Freeport to Roque Bluffs — to strap to their chests.

The videos depict what harvesters see — including sunrises, thick fog and sometimes even thicker mud. They also show the tools of the trade — rakes, buckets, hods, mesh bags and gloves, as well as various digging or pulling techniques. And more mud.

A microphone picks up the sucking sounds of harvesters’ waders emerging from the mud, as well as the harvesters’ occasional labored breath.

McGreavy says the Clam Cam captures the hard manual labor that goes into securing even a few pounds of fresh local clams for dinner.

Harvested soft-shelled clams from Maine were valued at $15.6 million in 2016 — making them the third most valuable commercial fishery in the state behind lobsters ($533 million) and Atlantic herring ($19 million). In 2016, the clam fishery dropped from second to third in commercial value, which may be part of a downward trend in many places in landed catch and license sales.

McGreavy says harvesters have shared a number of funny stories. In one, a person saw, for the first time, a harvester digging for clams and exclaimed, “So that’s where clams come from.”

Clam harvesters face environmental, economical and social challenges, says McGreavy.

Environmental challenges, she says, include climate change, which encompasses ocean acidification, shifting of species — including the devastating green crabs and other predators — and harmful algae blooms.

Social issues include persistent bias against clammers, lower levels of education and lack of access to technology in remote and rural areas.

Physical pain and substance use disorders contribute to other issues, says McGreavy, including challenges related to the capacities of towns to effectively manage and sustain the resource.

McGreavy, Quiring and Hathaway built a website — nest.maine.edu/clamcam — to showcase the project’s videos, interviews and data. They hope visitors to the site gain knowledge and an appreciation for the harvesters essential to this vital Maine industry.

For Hathaway, of Turner, Maine, the Clam Cam project was his first outside-the-classroom research experience. He says he’s gleaned in-depth insights about the clamming industry and an understanding of how academic research can benefit it.

For Quiring, of Kelowna, British Columbia, “one of the most compelling things about Clam Cam’s wearable approach to audio and video recording is that clammers have a substantial, embodied role in shaping how their industry is depicted. This variation on traditional data generation supports engaged and ethically mindful research.”

During one of the Down East digging sessions last summer, Quiring says the researchers helped a clammer put on the video camera, hit the record button and walked away to give him space. A few minutes later, they heard the man’s voice and wondered to whom he was talking.

“It turned out he was narrating his digging on camera, talking to the eventual viewer and describing what it was like to dig, how hot it was, how he finds clams and drains the water from the hole he’s working on, and why clamming is important to him,” says Quiring.

“We were surprised and excited about this spontaneous relationship that was forming between clammer and viewer, across both distance and time. This is one example of the joy and care clammers bring to their work that enriches our experiences as researchers as well as the experiences of the public who will be able to view these videos.”

A National Science Foundation award to the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and a grant from the University of Maine Humanities Center support the project.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

From UMaine News.