Mount Desert Islander interviews Beal about weather, clam decline

The Mount Desert Islander spoke with Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias and director of research at the Downeast Institute, for the article “Weather, not overfishing to blame for clam decline.” A recent study out of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has shown that documented landings of the four most commercially important inshore bivalve mollusks in the Northeast — including soft-shell clams — dropped by 85 percent between 1980 and 2010, the article states. The researchers attributed this decline to warming ocean temperatures, contradicting claims by some Maine shellfish harvesters that overharvesting is responsible. “My first response is that the article confirms what I have been seeing with soft-shell clams over at least the last decade or so,” said Beal, who said the real issue is an increased abundance of tiny predators — mainly juvenile green crabs — that thrive in warmer water and prey on juvenile shellfish. “The clam industry is fighting an uphill battle against a foe that is microscopic, and there’s no way that removing a few hundred thousand pounds of crabs by fishing them is going to make any dent in their predatory activities, because the focus of any fishery is on the adults when the bulk of predation is occurring at the level that is smaller than the size of your thumbnail,” he said. Beal also noted changes in the market have aligned with the decline in landings. “What has also happened is that demand for soft-shell clams is not what it used to be because people have ‘moved on’ to other shellfish that have more consistent production either because they are cultured and/or are being imported,” said Beal.