Access in Coastal Spaces

What is “Access”?

Listen in on any conversation about the state of the wild clam and mussel fishery in Maine and you are sure to hear the word “access”. As identified by harvesters, the Maine Shellfish Advisory Council, and municipal shellfish committees alike, access in coastal spaces is both crucial for the success of the wild clam and mussel fishery and currently threatened in a number of ways. Although many may think that access in coastal spaces refers to physical access to the intertidal area only, access manifests in structural and social ways as well. Physical, structural, and social access are all influenced and shaped by colonial forces that have historically and continue to exclude and displace Wabanaki people from accessing the wild clam and mussel fishery.

This page explores some of the many forms of access in coastal spaces, provides a collection of resources for preserving and protecting access as well as opportunities to engage with dialogues surrounding access, and highlights access in the news and in current research.

Physical Access

The wild clam fishery has long supported Wabanaki people in the place now known as Maine. When English colonists came to the the Massachusetts and Maine coasts, they enforced colonial ideas of land ownership coastal spaces and enacted violence to cut Wabanaki people off from key sources of sustenance including the clam fishery. Forces of colonization continue to displace and restrict physical access to intertidal spaces for Wabanaki people.

As the coast of Maine continues to be developed, the walking paths that many clammers use to access the mudflats are disappearing. The last few years have brought a large influx of new property owners into coastal communities in Maine. This influx has led to changes in the, often informal, “handshake agreements” that many harvesters had with coastal property owners to cross their land to access the intertidal zone.

Communities across the state are employing creative strategies to preserve and protect walk in access and parking for harvesters. Solutions are not universally applicable, as the communities along the coast each host unique natural features, cultures, and needs. Some communities are working with land trusts such as Maine Coast Heritage Trust, to make tracts of land permanent conservation areas. Other communities are codifying access in municipal ordinance. For example, ordinance in Lamoine, Maine requires new coastal development of a certain size to include coastal access and public parking.

Structural Access

While physical access is necessary, one must also have a license to harvest clams legally. Commercial clamming licenses are issued by municipalities. Typically licenses can only be acquired by residents of the issuing municipality, though municipalities are required to offer a small number of licenses for those who are not residents of the town. Residency requirements differ from municipality to municipality (as highlighted by the work done by Bates College students), with some requiring that one must permanently reside in the municipality for a year to be considered a resident and others requiring only three months. As the coast of Maine becomes an increasingly expensive place to live, many harvesters are being displaced from coastal communities and, in turn, losing their access to licenses to harvest. These residency requirements also further exclude Wabanaki harvesters from accessing licenses to harvest.

Management of the wild clam fishery in Maine is shared between municipalities and the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). While partial municipal management creates more opportunities for community engagement, harvester access to the decision making process needs to be considered. One way that DMR is seeking to expand this access is through a series of listening sessions, hosted across the state in the summer of 2022. These sessions provided an opportunity for harvesters, local decision makers, municipal shellfish committee members, shellfish wardens, and community members to share concerns and brainstorm solutions.

Commercial harvesters require access to processing and markets to sell the product that they harvest. This is a crucial step in the supply chain which brings Maine clams to our plates.

Social Access

Wabanaki people have been harvesting clams in Maine for time immemorial. However, the restrictive licensing procedures, residency requirements, and decreasing physical access are further restricting Wabanaki harvesters from accessing this fishery and food source. Proposed strategies to expand Wabanaki access to clamming include the creation of a new class of license specifically for Wabanaki harvesters.

Commercial clamming in Maine has been a predominantly white and male profession. As is the case with many professions on the working waterfront, workforce development and diversification is crucial. Some municipalities have developed or are developing programs to engage local youth in clamming, utilizing student licenses to get young people on the mudflats with experienced clammers. Diversification of commercial harvesting and connecting experienced clammers with burgeoning harvesters further expands access through the conveyance of experiential knowledge and creating more representation on the mudflat.

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Have something to add to the ongoing discussion surrounding access in coastal spaces in Maine? Please contact B Lauer with the MSLN to add to this or other pages surrounding access.