Monday was the kind of day that gives November in Maine a bad rap: the sky was steely gray and the damp air hovered around 30F. However, inside the Elementary School at Chewonki, the energy was electric as students prepared for a major expedition to the clam flats of Medomak River in Waldoboro.
All 10 of students in the class conducted research to prepare for their field trip to the clam flats, located about 30 minutes down the coast from Chewonki, and the #1 clam-producing municipality in Maine.
Two students were made notes as they read about clamming as a way of life. Two more investigated the economics of this second-largest (after lobstering) fishing industry in Maine. Others researched the science of clams and clam habitat; how clammers do their work, the environmental issues that affect clams, and the impact of water pollution and invasive European green crabs.
They were met by longtime clammer Glen Melvin in Waldoboro, and the young scientists had plenty of questions. Melvin, who grew up in the town and has been clamming since 1976, fielded them all, brimming with information and good cheer.
“I had a great time with the class,” says Melvin. “They were very curious, they had great questions. They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and dive in. A couple of them, literally (lots of laughs). Everyone in the class wanted to try the world of clamming.”
Melvin learned clamming from a school friend when he was 15. He is now a successful self-employed fisherman, the co-chair of the Waldoboro Shellfish Committee, and a member of the Shellfish Harvesters Advisory Council and the Maine Elver Association Council. A master of the trade, he explained that clamming is Waldoboro’s largest industry: 150 men and women there have a license to dig for clams, and clams generated more than $2 million for these clammers last year.
“Probably the thing that surprised me the most was it took nine or ten guesses for the kids to guess the most productive clam town in the state,” Melvin says. “It’s a half-hour from them, and they didn’t know.”
The students described Melvin striding across the flats. “He’s up to here in mud,” a girl says, rolling her eyes, “but he’s just going right along.” He wears a new pair of heavy gloves every day, the students said, to protect his hands as he digs down into the mud searching for the sharp-edged clams. (Many clammers use metal rakes with long tines; but Melvin finds his hands are better-suited for digging up the bivalves without breaking their shells, which makes them no good for market.)
Melvin’s commitment to his difficult work impressed students and teachers alike. “Sometimes he gets up at 3:00 in the morning” to get time on the flats while the tide is out, a girl explained.
“He said, ‘The tide is everything,’” says another girl. “You really have to know the tides…And you can never get water into your boots.”
Chewonki’s visit prompted Melvin to reflect on how much there is to know about the world outside classrooms. “Maine has so many neat things and students don’t know they exist,” he lamented.
On their return, the class filled their journals with everything they had learned about soft shell clams and quahogs; clam rakes and waders; the impact of water pollution; and the fearsome green crabs propagating wildly in warming ocean waters and devouring clams and clam seed that made this fishery a dependable source of income for generations.
Kat Cassidy, the Elementary School’s lead teacher, explained that the clam research is “part of my students’ investigation of Maine’s historical reliance on the water.” The class is just finishing studying salt marshes; now they will focus on Maine’s rocky intertidal zone. Next week, they’ll visit University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center and the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve–local resources that, like the clam flats, invite them to interact with the natural world in addition to reading about it. “At this age, they should be outside engaging with science directly,” says Cassidy.
The class examined the economics of clamming as well as the ecology. Success in clamming today “is purely a matter of the effort you put into it,” explains Cassidy. “You only earn the money if you find the clams.” The reality of this work became clear for the class after a student crunched the numbers on a whiteboard, determining how many clams a person needs to harvest daily to make a living–a math problem rooted in real life.
Competition from invasive green crabs and other clammers has made it harder to earn a living, and the number of clammers is nosediving. (Melvin’s 22-year-old son started clamming when he was 10, but he’s now in college.)
In view of the demands of the job, “You have to have a real passion to keep doing it,” one student acknowledged. The class all agreed that Melvin has this passion. He spent some years doing computer work and was recruited by a company who wanted him to move to Iowa, the students say, “But he said, “No way!’ He likes doing this.”
The Elementary students liked it too; none of them flinched at venturing onto the clam flats on that dank November day. Cassidy calls this kind of field trip “a great way to learn. This is what we do at Chewonki all the time: get the kids out and about, learning about their local environment.”