A clam's best friend
Editor's Note: The following profile appeared on The Working Waterfront website, where you can read the original article and see the accompanying photos.
Story and photos by Sharon Mack
GREAT WASS ISLAND – At the end of a sharp point of land jutting into Western Bay, the Down East Institute for Applied Marine Research is a small campus of outbuildings, docks and a wharf centered around a large, nondescript metal warehouse. Inside, the air is humid and laced with the briny smell of shellfish and salt water.
A dozen tanks of sea water teem with life – European oysters here, articsurf clams there, blue mussels over there. Tall glass bottles and jugs bubble and glow with eerie colors in an almost Frankenstein’s laboratory-like setting as algae is grown for the shellfish's breakfast.
Rushing from teaching a marine ecology class at the nearby University of Maine at Machias, Dr. Brian Beal hurries in, flannel shirt flapping and green rubber boots squeaking on the cement floor.
There is a crisis.
The pump that provides vital sea water to the tanks has failed, affecting water quality and possibly endangering the survival of billions of soft shell clam eggs. With facility manager George Protopopescue, the pump is pulled, a part replaced and the relief is visible on Beal’s face.
"No one else is doing this," Beal says of the importance of his clam and mussel research. "We have to."
Shellfish research isn’t just what Beal does – it is who he is. He was born and raised one causeway over, on Beal Island, and spent years gazing out to sea from his childhood classrooms, exploring the coastline and sea bottom. The fishermen and clammers who make their living here are his family, and for 25 years he has conducted shellfish research in attempt to bring them prosperity.
In early March, Beal was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative to improve aquaculture methods for growing blue mussels and arcticsurf clams.
The funding will allow DEI to examine the commercial production potential for both species – based on current aquaculture methods – and to seek consistent farming results in both the hatchery and field. The grant will bolster a $25,000 Maine Technology Institute Seed Grant that Beal was awarded in February, which also will focus on blue mussel seed development.
Beal's "hope and dream," he said, is to breed blue mussels, arcticsurf clams and European oysters, grow them in ocean farms along Washington County’s coastline and, as a result, turn the tide on the most economically poor county in the state. Working with Cooke Aquaculture, Beal already has helped establish a major blue mussel farm in Cobscook Bay, where five to 10 million blue mussels will soon head to market.
Until recently, most farmers in the cultured mussel industry found success in relying on "rope culture" – hanging ropes seeded with mussels from floating rafts – as the preferred method for collecting mussel seed stock. Over the past two to three years, that process has delivered inconsistent results for farmers along the entire Maine coast. Beal's research will focus on spawning, seeding and learning what type and configuration of rope will provide the best results.
"Research, education and economic development are all tied together. Ultimately, this will create new economic opportunities," says Beal. He says that Downeast
Maine could become to clams what Alabama was to cotton.
As he talks, Beal gently lifts a European Oyster from a saltwater tank the size of an old Buick. First imported into Maine waters in 1949, the large oysters can be sold for $1 a piece.
"Can you imagine how profitable this could be here?" he excitedly says, carefully replacing the oyster in the water. His enthusiasm grows as he explains that after releasing her eggs, a female oyster becomes male. Slapping the side of the tank, Beal laughs. "And the 'he' becomes a 'she'!"
As a native islander, the twice-daily tidal change, the shifts in weather, the smell of the brine, the sound of the gulls – these became a part of Beal. The daily trips on his grandfather's lobster boat didn't just keep an energetic boy busy for a morning – it molded his perceptions, curiosity and a deep love of the Downeast coast.
"It set the course for my whole life," he said.
Around the time that Beal and his grandfather were digging those clams, 250,000 bushels were harvested along the Washington County coast. Twenty years later, by 1994, that harvest had plummeted to 25,000 bushels.
"That is absolutely incredible," he said. "Is it the lack of clammers? Incredible predation? The higher water temperatures or acidity levels? No one really knows why, and there is absolutely no research money in the state of Maine for clams."
Beal is now the only person on the East Coast researching the farming of soft shell clams, a project he hopes will return prosperity to his beloved coastal home.
DEI now sells clams to eight coastal communities, the start of a county-wide clam seeding project that Beal hopes will turn the industry around.
"We will be seeding 3 million clams outdoors in April," he said. "We need to change the mindset in the clam industry that clam research is so important to the industry that money should be set aside, similar to the way lobster money is set aside. I am the only one over the past 25 years that is working on clam research and that's lonely. There is no concerted effort elsewhere because there is no regular source of funding."
Down East Institute hopes to construct a $3 million expansion in the next several years that will bring scientists and researchers to Downeast Maine.
"This is the last bastion of pristine, unspoiled sea coast for a marine environmental lab," he said. "This is an economic engine."
Sharon Mack is a freelance writer living in Machias.