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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Hawkins

The Turn of the Intertidal

Virginia Hawkins, Coastal Resilience Fellow, delves into the fascinating world of Maine's intertidal zone, exploring both the challenges faced and the resilient solutions that are being implemented to protect Maine's unique coastal ecosystem.


For centuries, the intertidal zone has been an essential ecosystem not only for the species that live there, but also for the people who have relied on it for food, income, and livelihood. Due to climate and social changes, the intertidal zone is facing a multitude of challenges. However, the communities that depend on this important ecosystem are coming together to initiate projects and initiatives aimed at protecting and preserving its health and accessibility.


Intertidal zone in the Casco Bay (Source: News Center Maine)


As water temperatures rise, conditions become more suitable for non-native species to survive. In recent years, the Gulf of Maine coastline has been invaded by the European green crab, Carcinus maenas, which has wreaked havoc among the shellfish populations. Green crabs were first spotted in Maine in the 1900s, but with the warmer waters, they can now better survive, leading to an increase their populations. Green crabs feed on soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria) and blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), significantly reducing their populations.


Green crab munching on a soft-shell clam (Source: Save the Harbor)


Some municipalities along the coast have begun reseeding tidal flats with quahogs, Mercenaria mercenaria, because they are more resilient to predation and are more tolerant of the rising ocean temperatures. Municipalities have also incorporated green crab trapping as a way to earn conservation hours, which are required for holding a municipal shellfish license. Other efforts involve catching green crabs to determine the commercial viability of the crab in attempts to reduce their population.


Researchers have started monitoring and tracking the range expansion of Atlantic blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, into the Gulf of Maine to understand their effects on the intertidal ecosystem. As the blue crab's aggressive nature could make them a predator to shellfish, understanding their role could shed light on the potential impact on the ecosystem. These are just a few ecological issues that mudflats are facing, and as the effects of climate change continue to worsen, these flats may encounter even more challenges.


Atlantic blue crab (Source: National Wildlife Federation)


The softshell clams are not the only species experiencing unwanted neighbors in the intertidal. The communities that live and rely on the intertidal are experiencing social and economic shifts, and the gentrification of Maine’s coastline has created new challenges for fishing communities. The changing of land ownership has resulted in clammers being unable to access previous points to dig wild clams. In years prior, the relationship between clammers and landowners was based on handshake agreements. However, these informal agreements have not been passed down to the new owners. The loss of these agreements resulted in losing access points to the intertidal. The limited number of access points has caused clammers to walk for miles, lugging their equipment and clams back and forth.


In efforts to resolve these challenges, shellfish co-management committees have achieved ways to rebuild these relationships so that clammers can regain access to the mudflats. The Preserving Access to the Intertidal guidance document (created by former Resilience Corps Fellow Josee Stetich) was created to serve as an educational resource for shellfish committees to utilize when wanting to protect and expand access to the intertidal. The Gouldsboro’s Shellfish Committee is currently mapping out access points to identify which ones are most productive or the most at-risk so that actions to preserve these points can be conducted. The Harpswell Shellfish Committee hosted a landowner appreciation event that created an inviting space where clammers and landowners had the opportunity to create connections and cultivate relationships that could potentially lead to more points of access to the intertidal.


In addition to losing access to the intertidal zone due to new landownership, another challenge associated with the gentrification of Maine's coastline is the rising cost of living in these coastal communities. The increased cost of living has resulted in many shellfish harvesters moving away to more affordable locations, which can cause them to lose their harvesting license. To harvest wild shellfish, harvesters must hold a municipal shellfish license in the town where they harvest. If they are no longer a resident of the town, they may hold a non-resident license, but those are more expensive and limited in number. In many municipalities, not being a resident of the town can prevent one from joining that municipality's shellfish committee. In light of this situation, municipal shellfish committees are beginning to review their town ordinances that cover residency requirements to make obtaining and holding shellfish licenses more equitable.


These are just a few among many examples of what is happening along Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline. Numerous initiatives and projects are underway to preserve and protect the intertidal and the industry that relies on its health and access.


During my service term, I've had the privilege of listening to the incredible stories of fishermen and women, who have shared their struggles and uplifting triumphs with me. Their deep compassion and determination have brought them together to collaborate with fellow industry members, researchers, state agencies, and community members, making this industry remarkably resilient in the face of challenges and interesting to research. If you're interested in learning more about Maine's intertidal zone or want to get involved in supporting your local shellfish industry, please email me at vhawkins@gpcog.org.


About Virginia



Virginia is from a small town in eastern North Carolina. She studied at Western Carolina University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. While earning her education in the Appalachian Mountains, her love of protecting the great outdoors flourished. Following graduation, she worked for the North Carolina State Parks as an assistant park ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park. Working as an assistant park ranger allowed her to grasp an understanding of the importance of natural resource conservation in the coastal region as well as grow an appreciation for coastal communities which inspired her to serve in Portland. Virginia enjoys exploring the great outdoors by hiking, camping, and a little bit of fishing. She also likes to do pottery, baking, and adventuring around thrift shops, museums, and local restaurants. She aims to become a leader in the climate action movement in order to protect the planet and its people which is why she is excited to serve as the Coastal Resilience fellow.

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