Most clammers back in business

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. A sign posted at a water access point at the end of Wheeler Point telling clammers that the flats are closed due to recent rains. Gloucester's shellfish warden says the area should reopen Sunday, barring more rain.

This has been the summer of our shellfish harvesting discontent. Rain. Red tide. Rinse. Repeat.

Now perhaps, there is hope for diggers and consumers of fresh, local  shellfish.

The red tide ban that shut down all legal shellfish harvesting in Gloucester and throughout the rest of the North Shore for more than a month ended on July 31 for soft-shell clams. On Thursday, diggers in Gloucester also were allowed to return to the harvesting of blue mussels and and razor clams.

Still, the shellfish fishery, so weather-dependent, is anything but static.

Heavy rain Wednesday night returned this digging season to its checker-board pattern, as state and local public health officials closed Essex Bay — including adjacent harvesting areas in Gloucester, Essex and Ipswich — to the harvesting of all shellfish for five days, with the fishery expected to reopen no earlier than Aug. 13.

The most recent rain also forced the closure of three areas adjacent to the Annisquam River — Mill River, Wheeler Point and Goose Creek — for three days. The anticipated re-opening for those areas is Sunday. The other designated digging areas of the Annisquam remain open to soft-shell clam harvesting.

Of course, the usual caveat applies.

"All of this is subject to change if we get more rain," Peter Seminara, Gloucester shellfish warden, said Thursday morning.

The cause for the closures is the public health concern about red tide, or algal blooms, that occur when pollution — often in the form of runoff from major rains — causes toxin-producing algae to flourish, presenting a serious threat of illness or death to anyone ingesting contaminated shellfish.

Seminara also reiterated that it remains illegal in Gloucester's recreational shellfish fishery to harvest surf clams, oysters, carnivorous snails, ocean quahogs, bay scallops and sea scallops (except for abductor muscles).

He also reminds diggers that all harvesting requires a shellfish permit available from the City Clerk's office and that only Massachusetts residents are eligible to obtain city shellfish permits.

Those reminders were not always heeded during the summer's longest closure, as Seminara and his staff documented as many as 16 violations of the harvesting rules in one week. The most egregious involved the large-scale illegal harvesting of surf clams at Wingaersheek Beach.

If cited criminally, illegal harvesters could face a minimum fine of $500 for harvesting during a red tide closure and other fines up to $2,000 and two years in jail if convicted.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.