New online resource aims to protect Casco Bay’s vulnerable shoreline

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BRUNSWICK, Maine – Chris Green, 50, has been digging clams on the intertidal mudflats of Middle Bay for a long time.

“My whole life. I started with my dad,” Green said Tuesday, sitting in his boat wearing thigh-high rubber boots splattered with salty mud.

During these years, he has seen many changes.

“The biggest change would be less access,” Green said. “Number two is the warming water.”

Rising water temperatures have resulted in more clams and longer digging seasons. But they also brought more clam predators like green crabs and milky ribbonworms.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Green said.

Travis Wilson digs clams with his father on the Middle Bay intertidal mud in Harpswell, near the Brunswick city limit, Tuesday, June 7, 2022. A new online information portal makes Casco Bay intertidal data more accessible. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Tracking these types of long-term changes on Middle Bay – and the rest of the intertidal zones of Greater Casco Bay – is the focus of a new online information portal launched by the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the Casco Bay Regional Shellfish Working Group.

The website combines multiple data streams from several diverse information sources into a single searchable portal designed to support planning and management in the region. It will also help communities along the bay to exchange information, fostering a more nuanced understanding of Casco Bay’s complex, intertidal and coastal ecosystem.

The public is invited to attend a webinar 3:30-5:00 p.m. Wednesday to learn how to use the Data Portal and apply it to real-world challenges.

The site’s various mapping applications focus on specific themes, including shellfish fishing, sea level rise, water quality and data collection on septic systems.

A clickable map shows overlapping uses along the shoreline from Biddeford to Boothbay Harbor. Another map plots infrastructure sensitive to sea level rise. A separate map is aimed directly at the shellfish fishing community, outlining landing numbers, areas closed to digging and important contact details for officials local.

David Wilson of Harpswell digs hard clams in the intertidal mud of Middle Bay, near the Brunswick city limit, Tuesday, June 7, 2022. A new online information portal is making Casco Bay intertidal data more accessible. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

“The intertidal zone plays an important economic, ecological and cultural role in the Casco Bay region,” said Sara Mills-Knapp, director of sustainability at the Council of Governments. “Communities need to understand the intertidal zone to plan for climate change impacts, balance uses, and manage natural resources.”

Intertidal zones are where sea and land meet. Often muddy, they are covered with sea water at high tide and exposed to the air and the sun at low tide.

The intertidal zone of Casco Bay supports human industries such as shellfish fishing and aquaculture.

Last year, diggers from Freeport, Brunswick, Harpswell and Phippsburg landed nearly 1.3 million pounds of clams at the east end of Casco Bay.

The intertidal zone also includes the bay’s sandy beaches, where tourists like to flock. Twelve million people visited Maine in 2020, and 17% of them went to the beach, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

Casco Bay’s intertidal zone is also home to a variety of important plant and animal species. Its eelgrass and salt marshes help stabilize shorelines, acting as a protective buffer against storm surges and flooding. This feature will only become more important as sea levels rise and more dynamic storms and floods occur.

With a hoe in one hand and clams in the other, David Wilson of Harpswell walks through the intertidal mud of Middle Bay, near the Brunswick city limit, Tuesday, June 7, 2022. A new online news portal makes Casco Bay intertidal data more accessible. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Middle Bay, where Green harvests his clams, is one of the few places in Maine where horseshoe crabs congregate to breed.

The organizations behind the new website hope the portal will be useful to those involved in planning, decision-making and climate change adaptation in the intertidal zone of Casco Bay. This includes local governments around Casco Bay, members of municipal committees, other coastal actors – and shellfish fishermen like Green.

“I will definitely use it,” Green said.

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