Bivalve Biology for Beginners

GEORGETOWN — Livy Glaubitz stood with her hands raised in triumph. “I got one,” she called out. In one hand was a clam rake, in the other a clam.  A few minutes later, another woman held up another of the prized mollusks, and before long, muddy forearms victoriously stretched skyward along the sandy banks of the creek.Glaubitz, of Bath, was one of about a dozen people to gather Wednesday at Reid State Park. Led by Georgetown Shellfish Warden Jon Hentz and Kennebec Estuary Land Trust environmentalist Becky Kolak, they received a two-hour education on the delectable bivalves.

The lessons provided for the mostly out-of-state students — participants hailed from New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey — included a bit of biology, a bit of ecology and a bit of clam-digging technique.

Kolak dissected a clam on the spot and mapped out the mollusk’s innards for the curious attendees, but the big take-home message of the day was how much work goes into ensuring that the clams consumed by seafood lovers nationwide are safe to eat.

Kolak told the visitors what many local residents and shellfish harvesters know all too well: Clams absorb the worst of the waters they’re living in. If pollutants, like the bacteria fecal coliform, flow down the rivers and into the clams’ habitat, the bivalves could be deadly to eat.

Heavy rains, which wash chemicals and waste into the flowing waters, trigger downriver testing and precautionary clam flat closures. The domino effect is that commercial shellfish harvesters are prevented from working and making a living.

“My No. 1 priority is the public health,” Hentz told a semi-circle of eager listeners Wednesday morning. “It’s ensuring that the shellfish you eat doesn’t make you sick or worse. People don’t seem to realize that. (They say), ‘Oh, I’ve been eating clams my whole life.’ But the water quality testing we do and (the Department of Marine Resources does) up in their Boothbay laboratory is done to be sure you’re getting good, clean product.”

Not all of Wednesday’s lessons were academic, however. Attendees of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust program were invited to try their hands at digging clams. Guests of the state parks are each allowed to pick a peck of clams per day, although Wednesday’s group didn’t approach the peck apiece limit.

Taking pointers from Hentz, members of the group sank the teeth of their clam rakes into the soft, wet sands alongside the creek bending around the back of Todd’s Head. Regardless of whether they kept their clams to be steamed later for a meal, they walked away knowing what goes into putting the shellfish on the plate.

skoenig@timesrecord.com Times Record article