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Intertidal: Seasonal shifts come to the coast

By Susan Olcott, originally published in the Press Herald

Clam digger. Photo by Elsa Martz

Last weekend spring officially arrived. While it doesn’t often feel like spring when the calendar officially says it begins, this year was an exception. Not only did the sun cross the celestial equator, dividing the sky from south to north on the vernal equinox, but it was actually warm when it did. The warm weather along with the increased day length made it feel perhaps even closer to summer than spring. Add to that the fact that the full moon occurred just before the equinox, bringing even more light to the first full day of spring, and big tides to go along with it.

Spring is a season of shifts in the natural world and also for those whose livelihoods depend on the seasons’ cycles. For Maine fishermen, this is certainly the case. Changes in the weather and the behavior of various species, along with rules and regulations that govern what can be harvested where, dictate the seasonality of fisheries in Maine.

Now that the ice is out, clam harvesters can get back out to previously inaccessible places.
Soft shell clam harvesting is limited by mother nature, while regulatory restrictions dictate a
winter closure for hard shell, or quahog, clams. Harvest for quahogs in Brunswick has been
off-limits since the start of the year and will reopen at the beginning of April, as part of a
seasonal closure that has been occurring since 2016. The reason for the closure is to protect
the resource at a time of year when the clams are most vulnerable and could be damaged by
extremely cold temperatures if exposed.

While the local quahog fishery is about to re-open, another nearshore fishery is ending for the year. That’s the Maine scallop fishery which is open exclusively during the winter months. Many near-shore lobster harvesters who ramp down in the late fall when the lobsters head
further offshore re-rig their boats with a scallop drag. The season for scallop dragging ended mid-March, but divers who collect scallops by hand still have a few weeks left in their season. Scallops can still be harvested from offshore, federal waters, at other times of the year, but the near-shore fishery only occurs in the winter months when the water is cool enough for this cold-loving species.

For many fishermen, however, spring is a time for preparation. There are nets to be mended and traps to be readied before the summer season. There is a lot of observation required as well – waiting and watching for the signs that fishing will be good. For example, lobstermen might set a few traps to get a sense of when the lobsters start to move back into inshore waters as the temperatures warm up.

While some of these seasonal shifts are predictable, every year is different. And, in recent
years this has been even more true. Increasing frequencies of storms and warming
temperatures have resulted in the ice melting or species migrating at different times in the
season. New species have also found their way into Maine waters at odd times of year as a
result of shifts in temperature and ocean currents.

All of this is critical to understanding spring on the coast and how its shifts impact the
delicious seafood we enjoy as well as those who have to pay close attention not only to the
calendar but also to what happens on and under the water.

March 2022