Clamming & Intertidal Ecosystems

I study and support communication in Maine’s clamming communities and shellfish co-management system. I work closely with research partners at the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the Maine Shellfish Advisory Council (ShAC), as well as  shellfish stakeholders across the state and a team of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty. I began this focus as part of my dissertation and expanded it as part of my postdoctoral fellowship with the New England Sustainability Consortium’s Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project.

Science Communication and Shellfish Management: Our partners involved in Maine’s shellfish co-management system, and in particular representatives from DMR and ShAC wanted to know how well the shellfish co-management system was working. We brought a communication lens to this interest to ask how communication was shaping co-management activities, such as access to information and the use of science in decision making; shellfish committee organization; the quality of relationships in the context of co-management; and the role of leadership, among other communication-related factors. We attended and observed more than 50 shellfish committee meetings, focusing first on three shellfish programs in Frenchman Bay and then expanding our focus to eleven other programs across the state. We also conducted 42 interviews with people involved in diverse aspects of shellfish co-management, including clammers, shellfish wardens, state biologists, shellfish dealers, and scientists.

This research helped identify how people are defining problems and what, in the face of these problems, may be considered success in co-management. We provided specific communication-focused recommendations for supporting co-management efforts, including strategies to systematically gather information from municipalities to tailor state-municipal partnerships, how to improve and leverage the learning that occurs as part of Shellfish Focus Day, and opportunities for science-based partnerships and to strengthen civic connections with shellfish management. This research is now being used to advance multiple initiatives to improve learning, expand partnerships, and improve linkages between water quality and shellfish science and decision making.

Decision Support System for Water Quality Analysis

A sign overlooking Frenchman Bay showing the multiple values that need to be balanced healthy coastal ecosystems and communities.

Researchers associated with the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions are working with partners at the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Healthy Beaches (MHB), and related organizations to develop a Decision Support System (DSS) to support decision making about water quality to protect public health and minimize negative impacts on shellfish and tourist economies. My role in the development of the DSS has been two-fold. First, I conduct research on the development of the interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration, helping to identify needs for information, partnership preferences, and how to develop the DSS so it is credible and useful to decision makers. I am also leading an analysis of how communication shapes linking science with decision making in Maine coastal communities, focusing on the shellfish co-management system as described above. The set of recommendations for strengthening science communication for adaptive capacities has become one of the four tools in the DSS.

The other four DSS components include the following:  (1) a water quality model that allows an analysis of water quality trends at each of the monitoring stations maintained by the DMR and MHB (led by Drs. Brian McGill and Benoit Parmentier); (2) an analysis of coastal watershed vulnerability based on relationships between sources of pollution, delivery of pollution and water through a watershed, and the residence time of pollution in estuaries (led by Drs. Sean Smith and Sam Roy and graduate students); (3) tidal modeling to help improve understanding of pollution circulation in Wells, the Medomak River (led by Drs. Damian Brady and Kelly Cole with support from Master’s student Gabby Hillyer); (4) an analysis of the economic impact of short term water quality closures in Machias (led by Dr. Keith Evans and his collaborators).

For more information on the development of the DSS, see this collaborative presentation that our team gave in the Mitchell Center Seminar Series in October, 2016:

Communicating Health and Well Being

National surveys in the United States indicate that approximately 21.5 million adults struggle with substance use disorders (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2015). This is a pressing issue of human well-being in the State of Maine which is currently experiencing an opiate epidemic and where downeast coastal regions have one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the United States, with 20 deaths per 100,000 residents per year (Diomede, 2015). Studies of addiction generally focus on social causes and effects; thus the relationship between this pervasive social problem, ecosystems, and natural resource co-management is not well understood

Conservative estimates drawn from my qualitative interviews with people involved in shellfishing indicate 20% of licensed clammers struggle with opiate addiction, with much higher rates of other substance use disorders such as alcoholism. There are a host of factors that have been identified in the literature and that are also evident in this case that increase clammers’ risk of struggling with substance use disorders as adults (Cleary & Thomas, 2017). These include genetics, family history, abuse in childhood (Letendre & Reed, 2017), related injury, medical practices and ethics, poverty, and literacy and education agency. In clamming communities, physical strain and injury from clamming, especially to the neck, shoulders, and lower back, is a key risk factor. This risk is compounded by unsustainable management practices which deplete clams from softer intertidal substrates and push clammers into rockier substrates. Further, substance use disorders constrain adaptive capacities by reducing the number of volunteers who can effectively participate in conservation activities and increasing social exclusion and negative conflict at municipal shellfish meetings. This research has identified the complex ways in which substance use disorders affect the resilience of this fishery, highlighting six key factors, including (1) the relationship between ecosystem quality and resource management; (2) connections between management regulations and criminal activity; (3) a sense of futurity and the sustainability of the resource; (4) limits to volunteerism; (5) interactions that reinforce existing social hierarchies and exclusion; and (6) increased conflict within and across fisheries. I briefly elaborate each of these factors here.

Sunrise over clam hod
The physical demands of clamming impact  health and well being  and are connected to ecosystem quality.

The first factor is evident in the following quote from a clammer who describes the relationship between ecosystem quality and resource management: “Well, we’ve got some of the nicest, softest mud – bone-free mud – you can be in a lot of boney mud – shelly mud – where you’re cutting yourself up and it’s hard if you’re pulling in the mud.  It’s hard on your fingers and your wrist and everything.  But hopefully that will reseed some day.” Though Maine’s shellfish co-management system provides a space for clammers, managers, regulators, and scientists to collaborate to help manage and sustain shellfish resources, many municipal programs struggle with effective management and the resource is in steep decline across the coast. Clams are harvested in the places where the digging is easiest, usually in the lower intertidal areas. As these mudflats become depleted, clammers are pushed into the higher intertidal where the digging is rockier and more challenging. This increases the already hard physical toll that clamming takes on the body. The second factor occurs at the intersection between management regulations and criminal activity. Clammers who struggle with substance use disorders generally do not have the financial reserves or adaptive capacities to effectively respond when water quality closures occur. They may also be more likely to dig in conservation closures. Digging in water quality closures puts the public at risk and digging in conservation closures damages the longterm survivability of the resource. The third factor is about the futurity and sustainability of the resource. Clammers with substance use disorders and especially opiate addiction, do not have the same perspective about the futurity of the resource and are less likely or able to participate in the conservation activities that are essential for maintaining the resource. The final three factors all directly relate to constraints on adaptive capacities, including how high rates of substance use disorders limit volunteerism, reinforce hierarchy and social exclusion, and increase negative conflict within and across fisheries. This research is ongoing and parts of the analysis have been presented at the National Communication Association (November 2017), the Resilience Conference (August 2017), and the Conference on Communication and the Environment (June 2017).

Select references

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from

Diomede, T. (2015). SEOW special report: Heroin, opioids, and other drugs in Maine. Augusta, ME: Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from