Pembroke, a small fishing community on the far north-east coast of Maine, is famed among seafood lovers up and down the US east coast for its clams and lobster.
So at first glance, with its North Atlantic environs, it would seem a far cry from Meningie, South Australia, where the turbid waters of the Murray River empty into estuarine lakes flowing ultimately to the fabled Coorong lagoon; a mere sandbar away from the Great Australian Bight.
But landscapes aside, for young Pembroke native and environmental science student Tucker Sheehan the Coorong fishery and the Pembroke clam fishery have a lot in common.
Tucker recently spent two months working with Coorong fisher Glen Hill during his summer break to experience a very different type of fishery to the clam business in which he was raised.
The actual practises couldn’t be more different. Clamming involves back-breaking hours digging into mudflats with a short-handled rake. The mullet fishing he did with Glen actually involved a boat; albeit a well-dented aluminium ‘tinny’.
But this is where Tucker found the important similarities: “They are both community-based fisheries and hand operated,” he says.
He explains the importance of these factors by noting the two fisheries’ roles in their local economies, and the resource sustainability that is built-in by the limits of manual labour.
“The catch is restricted to how much people can actually catch in the time available. For clammers this is low tide, and for most that also means just daytime low tides.
“It’s the same on the Coorong. Each licensed fisher can only have a couple of nets in the water and it takes time to walk them back into the boat and each time you might get one box of fish … if the seals don’t beat you to it.
“Over the weeks as we moved to different areas of the lagoon the catch was very consistent, indicating an evenly distributed, healthy, population.”
Given the importance of the fishery to the local community and economy, Tucker was surprised at the antagonism from some quarters towards the fishery, but says he also soon learnt there was little interest in debate: “People seem to have set positions, but what you hear or see written and what I found to be the reality are quite different.
“It was obvious, from what I saw and from the daily data, that the fish population is healthy. On the rare occasion a species other than the target species was caught, it was released immediately. When mullet was the target species, that’s what we caught; that’s what the nets are designed to catch. From a fisher’s perspective, if you are trying to fill orders for mullet, the last thing you want is another species in the catch, so a lot of care is taken to prevent by-catch.
“But if you try and show the critics the catch figures, they don’t want to know.”
Given the Coorong Fishery’s international acclaim as a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fishery, which it obtained with help from the international environmental group WWF, the opposition from other environmental lobbies surprised the visitor: “It was something I hadn’t expected and it has given me something to think about when I return to university. I’m studying environmental science and sustainability and I’m interested in how people perceive this or respond to this. So it was instructive to experience firsthand how the fishers operate and what they have to do to keep their MSC credential, and then against this a prevailing view that commercial fishing at any level is bad.
Tucker was invited to spend time at the Coorong by Glen and Tracy Hill when they visited Pembroke in early 2016 as part of an FRDC-supported study tour of Community Supported Fisheries.
Tucker’s father Tim is a marine biologist-turned-clam trader who supplies a larger distribution business that services markets and restaurants on the US eastern seaboard down to Boston and New York.
The family business has given Tucker a keen insight into the role of the fishery in the community.
“It’s really the only income for low-skilled people, and it’s one of those jobs where what you earn relates directly to how hard you work. So some people work just enough hours to sustain a hand-to-mouth existence, others put in long hours and make good money. If you take it seriously you can earn US$50,000 to US$60,000 a year.
“After I graduated from high school I earned US$20,000 in three months … going out at every low tide. It enabled me to pay for my first year of college in cash. But unfortunately we see in our community the debilitating affects of low education or drug addiction. A lot of people make good money and lose it just as quickly … but at least the clamming gives them a chance.”
Because of clamming’s capacity to provide an income for the unskilled, the disabled or people with drug or alcohol problems, local poverty alleviation was actually part of Tucker’s parents business plan when they started. Pembroke is in Maine’s poorest county, where 20 per cent of its 32,000 residents live in poverty. This has made the Sheehans creative problem-solvers for the local clammers (they make the tools and baskets that people use and guide people through the regulatory processes). They are vocal, and practical, advocates for the fishery’s potential to lift the local economy.
The clams from the fishery resemble an Australian mud cockle, but much larger; ranging from the minimum legal size of 5cm across, up to 12cm. The clams are harvested with a handheld rake that looks like a bent pitch fork, and fishers are paid by the pound.
Tucker explains that people need two licenses, one local and one state, which cost US$50 and US$100 respectively.
He says there are about 150 licensed clammers supplying his family, but only about 20 would be full-time or regular.
The fishery is considered robust in terms of sustainability, but nonetheless is closely monitored.
Every clammer has a card on which they have to record the time and date they fished, where they fished and how long they fished, and this information has to be submitted when they sell their catch. This data and the weight of the catch is sent to Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. Failure to provide the information incurs a US$400 fine.
Tucker says that while the department keeps a close watch on the take, the fishery is largely self-regulated: “Clammers generally move on to a new beach before having to be asked,” he says. “And if a beach is closed because stocks are getting low it only takes a few months for the population to replenish itself, especially in the warmer months when the microorganisms the clams feed on are in abundance.”
Tucker says he plans to stay in the fishing industry, “but more on the science side”.
He says working on the Coorong was a fascinating experience and he will be watching with interest how the fishery manages its future.
He says one of his main hopes is for the fishers to get a fair hearing in the public debate about small commercial fisheries and whether or not they impinge on recreational fishing.
“The general impression I gained is that there is an attitude that dismisses what the fishers say because they are not scientists … a crazy situation because they know more than anyone about the water, the species, the population densities and the state of the environment generally. Their livelihoods depend on that knowledge.”
This story was published in Fish Magazine for the FRDC
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