Fighting for Shellfish Industry

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By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Tuesday, April 12, 2011

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Oyster farmer Will Carey of Newmarket works his oyster farm in Little Bay in Newington on April 7. Commercial and recreational shellfishing in New Hampshire would be shut down if funding isn't restored for a program cut by the state's House of Representatives in its version of the state budget.
[AP photo]

HAMPTON -- A local businessman and owner of Defiant Lobster Company said a spending cut in the $10.2 billion budget the House approved two weeks ago would shut down commercial and recreational shellfishing at Hampton Harbor and throughout the state beginning July 1.

Peter Tilton is not a professional clammer but his businesses on Landing Road sells state licences and supplies to local clammers.

"A lot of people didn't hear anything about this," Tilton said on Friday. "It was very sneaky and it surprised a lot of people. It would be a real tragedy if this goes through, especially for those who make their living doing it."

Tilton said the move to eliminate the shellfish program from the state Department of Environmental Services budget would effectively push all New Hampshire-based shellfish companies out of the business.

The shellfish program is responsible for testing and monitoring the waters along the state's coastline and the Great and Little Bay.

Environmental Services Commissioner Tom Burack said without that testing, shellfish operations by aquaculture farmers, recreational clam diggers and others would be stopped because the state could not meet the federal standards to test the water to ensure the shellfish are safe to eat.

If the state stops testing the waters, the federal Food and Drug Administration would take New Hampshire off the list of states adhering to national shellfish sanitation guidelines. Once that is done, other states won't buy shellfish from New Hampshire and local fish outlets won't want to take a chance either, said Chris Nash, the state's shellfish manager, whose job would be eliminated.

"The last thing anyone wants to do is sell something that might cause an illness," he said.

State Rep. Amy Perkins, of Seabrook, said the cut would not only devastate the local economy, but the state would also lose revenue.

The state licenses three commercial oyster farms in the estuary and three mussel operations in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2009, the state issued 1,400 recreational licenses for harvesting soft shell clams and oysters. An additional 1,300 people age 68 and older are allowed to harvest for free. Licenses aren't needed for blue mussels and surf clams.

"This is such an awesome natural resource for our Seacoast," Perkins said. "For this budget to do away with those monies is the prime example of penny wise and pound foolish."

Perkins, a Republican, said the issue is an emotional one for her. She remembers driving to Seabrook Beach with her family as a kid and seeing the clammers at work on the way.

"That's how I knew we arrived at the ocean," Perkins said.

State Rep. Fred Rice, R-Hampton, said all the cuts proposed in the budget are difficult but were needed to balance the budget.

"There is no question that every single thing in the budget that was reduced has an impact," Rice said. "But if you're going to restore funding, it has to be taken from somewhere else."

Rice said the proposed cuts were recommendations from the state Department of Environmental Services.

While the shellfish program was on the list of potential programs that could be cut, DES officials in their report to the House noted how their recommendation was for no reduction in funding, and reiterated the need to maintain all programs.

Tilton and others have already started a campaign to try and convince state senators to restore the funding for the program.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, said she is aware of the issue and will do her best to restore the funding to the program.

"I plan to work with the Finance Committee and DES to put back the money for shellfish and to make sure we include the money for testing of public waters," Stiles said. "We can't afford not to know that our beaches, lakes, etc. are safe for our citizens and visitors. If we don't check the health of our flats, our clamming industry is either eliminated or possibly unsafe.

Stiles, however, said she may have an uphill battle because Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse has already said lawmakers should not come in asking for more money without identifying where else the budget can be reduced.

"So I will have to work with DES to identify what other small cuts can be made to restore this money for safety of our waters, tourism and shellfish without destroying a whole industry," Stiles said.

Shellfish that are currently able to be harvested in New Hampshire include softshell clams, oysters, blue mussels, surf clams, mahogany quahogs and razor clams.

Oyster farmer Will Carey of Newmarket works his oyster farm in Little Bay in Newington April 7. If the state Legislature doesn't restore funding for the program, Carey and other shell fisherman may be out of business.
[AP photo]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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