Maine's shellfish industry at risk


Mercedes Grandin, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
March 23, 2009

Maine's shellfish industry is at risk of drastically reducing its size because the state lacks the funding and personnel needed to comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's water-quality testing for shellfish sanitation. Currently, the state's Department of Marine Resources operates with a staff of only five covering and inspecting 1,000 miles of Maine's coastline.

According to the FDA, Maine is failing to adequately test its shoreline to ensure shellfish extracted from the flats meet minimum health requirements and are safe to eat.

"It's gotten to the point now where they've fallen into noncompliance," said Peter Koufopoulos, the FDA's Northeast Regional Shellfish Specialist.

Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, who is serving his first term on Maine's Marine Resources Committee, is fighting to add USD 310,000 (EUR 229,114) to the committee's budget, so the DMR can add four inspectors to its shellfish-monitoring program.

Lack of action by the state legislature could result in a federal ban on interstate shellfish commerce, an industry the Maine Department of Marine Resources estimates at USD 50 to 60 million (EUR 36.9 to 44.2 million).

"If the flats are closed and we can't sell shellfish, what's to stop people from thinking, 'Well, if their clams are bad, their lobster must be, too," Weaver said. "It's just a no-win situation."

Last week, the Marine Resources Committee sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee, requesting the additional four positions for their Public Health Division.

"It's now in their hands and they'll take committee responses to the governor's budget and eventually it will go before state legislature," said David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. According to Etnier, it may be weeks before the appropriations committee has any response for the shellfish industry, as it attempts to review the committee budgets of a state facing a rising USD 65 million (EUR 47.9 million) shortfall.

If the Department of Marine Resources can't secure additional funding, it may be forced to shut down shellfish inspection for most of the coastline, leaving only the most intensive 300 to 400 miles of commercial shellfish harvesting areas open for the existing five employees to inspect.

"We have started reducing the amount of coast our program covers already, with York County's recreational shellfish industry being the first area to become closed to harvesting due to staffing shortages," said Etnier.

If no action is taken, the FDA can recommend Maine go before the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, a self-regulating group of shellfish-producing states, and the federal government. The conference, which meets in October, could decide to put the state on probation or restrict interstate commerce of Maine's shellfish. New York and Connecticut have already been forced to reduce the size of their shellfish programs due to noncompliance with federal regulations.

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