The Great Green Crab Invasion and the Battle for Coastal Maine

As rising ocean temperatures wreak havoc on local sea life, generations of clammers suddenly find their livelihoods at risk—and a rift widens about what can be done.

The Great Green Crab Invasion and the Battle for Coastal Maine

It was the summer of 2013 and mud flats of Brunswick, Maine, were drowning in green crabs. They seemed to be springing from the earth, hundreds and hundreds of them, until the local clammers couldn’t flip a piece of mud to dig for clams without finding several green crabs scuttling beneath. They were packed so thick beneath the banks that the mud itself appeared to be moving.

“I’d leave a sack of clams to cool in the water,” says clammer Chris Green. “Within minutes I’d find it covered with green crabs.”

He set a small trap with bait for green crabs, and saw it fill before his eyes: fifty pounds of green crabs in just a few hours. They were everywhere, they were hungry, and their food of choice was baby clams. For generations, the communal mud flats of Brunswick teemed with clams. Now, there was nothing but crabs.

“There was no way to keep up,” says Green.

There have been green crabs in Maine ever since the mid-1800s, when they arrived from Europe on the bottoms of ships. Except for a brief spike in the late 1950’s, they never posed a threat to the Maine fisheries until 2011, when the waters around Brunswick grew too warm to kill the crabs over the winter. Suddenly, they were appearing in numbers no one had seen before. YouTube videos showed dump trucks full of the squirming creatures, and a 2013 study found that in just two years, the clam population in Brunswick fell by 40%, decimated by the appetites of the rapidly multiplying green crabs. The clams were not the only casualty. Eelgrass, essential for protecting against erosion, has disappeared from the banks of the bay, and wild mussels, which were plentiful a decade ago, are now nearly impossible to find.

A few panicked clammers started writing to town and state agencies asking for assistance to remove the green crabs. The Maine Department of Marine Resources was suddenly aflutter with green crab eradication efforts, talking to researchers around the world, and organizing a statewide study to collect data and raise awareness about the invasion no one saw coming.

“There was no plan,” says Dan Devereaux, Brunswick shellfish warden. “No one was prepared for this.”

In Freeport, Clammers Association President Chad Coffin remembers standing on the banks, shouting “Crab!” the way folks in movies shout “Shark!” as the flats were invaded by the crabs, while “the rest of the world just continued on their way.”

Green has been digging clams in Brunswick for thirty five years, since he was an eight year old trying to get money for a new baseball glove. He is missing a tooth and wears a tattered Red Sox hat, but he talks like an altruistic businessman.

“I want to leave this industry better than I found it,” he says, and he approaches that mission with an intensity that borders on obsession.

In the summer of 2013, frustrated by the inaction of his fellow clammers, Green set up a network of traps along the intertidal zone to try and catch the green crabs before they could eat more clams. By midsummer, Green was hauling up to six hundred pounds of green crabs out of the ocean every day—protecting not just his harvest, but that of all the clammers who worked the flat.

The other clammers laughed at Green as he hauled out pounds and pounds of inedible green crabs, breaking his back and not even getting paid for it. Green tried to rally his fellow clammers—“They’re eating your money!”, he told them—but he had trouble finding anyone who wanted to help. Green said fighting the crabs would have required his fellow clammers to shift their perception—to stop thinking of themselves as hunters, and start looking at the clams as something in need of their protection.

“They’re stuck in a mentality of take, take, take,” he says.

Older clammers thought Green was paranoid. Ron Crocker had dug clams in Brunswick for sixty years, and saw no reason for Green’s alarm. Crocker had already lived through one invasion of green crabs in the fifties. That time, wild clams briefly declined but returned plentifully just a few years later.

“Cycles,” he says, echoing the reassurance he offered to the younger clammers. “There are good years and bad years. It’s just a cycle.”

And then one day, the green crabs disappeared. The icy winter of 2014, when New England was buried under record amounts of snow, was cold enough that, for the first time in years, the green crab population declined. This seemed to confirm Crocker’s theory, that nature would take care of the problem on her own, but Green couldn’t believe that one cold winter meant the problem wouldn’t return. If the clammers wouldn’t fight to protect their communal flats, he would strike out on his own.

This year, Green asked Brunswick to lease him three acres of mud flats on which to start a private clam farm—three acres where no one else could dig. He was sick of breaking his back to protect the public mud flats when “no one else put the effort in.” Rather than depend on wild clams, whose numbers depend on the whims of nature, he wanted to seed and protect clams like an agrarian crop, ensuring a reliable harvest regardless of climate change.

After generations of communal harvest, Green’s plan threatened to profoundly alter the culture of the flats. For Brunswick clammers, Green’s proposal was a personal slight. The flats had always been shared, and clam digging was a communal venture. And, one clammer worried, if leasing was legal, what was to keep some rich individual from buying up all the flats? But privatizing the flats was the only solution Green saw to the tragedy of the clamming commons, where everyone dug clams and no one protected them. If Brunswick did not find a way to encourage clammers to protect the wild clams, Green believed, the other clammers would decimate the species.

“They’d dig till the last clam was gone,” he says.

The other clammers weren’t laughing anymore. They were furious. They came to the April 1st meeting of the Marine Resources Committee to vent their rage.

On the first Wednesday of every month, dozens of shellfishermen gather at the Brunswick Town Hall to discuss policy changes and conservation efforts. These meetings are known to get tense and adversarial, and the April meeting of 2015 was no exception.

Green sat facing the crowd from the front table, hunched over his microphone in a hoodie and Red Sox hat. His hands drummed impatiently against the table as his eyes followed the proceedings intently. When his lease proposal was read, the other clammers seated in the back of the hall started to guffaw and make wise cracks. When the cost of $1,000 per leased acre was proposed, a clammer whispered loudly to his neighbor, “How bout five bucks!” then, “I wouldn’t pay one buck!”

At the beginning of the meeting, a man with a lisp and weathered hands asked a question from the back of the Brunswick town hall meeting room, “I’m seeing a lot of small clams and a lot of big clams out there but no medium clams. What’s going on?”

At the front of the room, Green ground his teeth irritably. For Green this was a perfect example of his fellow clammers’ willful ignorance. It had been two years since the invasion of green crabs. All the clams that would have reached mid size this year were eaten as babies in 2013. Some clammers were still acting entirely oblivious to the green crabs’ impact.

The tension surrounding Green’s lease proposal was palpable. At one point, a clammer with ruffled hair and red cheeks interrupted the proceedings with a hostile question for Green.

“I just want to know what your secret is that you’re going to be able to do this on your own,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s a really pertinent question, Bobby,” said the nervous moderator.

“What does he think he can do so different that we couldn’t all do as a team?” Bobby Graffam continued, arms folded across his chest. “That’s my question.”

Green leaned into his microphone defensively, as he attempted to explain why he believed his practice of seeding and net protection would yield better results for clam harvests, but Graffam wasn’t listening. Instead, he repeated his question, with his finger pointed towards Green and resentment dripping from his voice.

“I want to know what you are gonna do so different,” he said, “that we couldn’t all do as a team and make it work?”

The debate continued, sharp words exchanged on both sides. But Graffam’s question hung unanswered, even as the meeting disbanded. What are you going to do that we couldn’t all do as a team?

Shortly after the meeting, Green’s application got approved. The town of Brunswick granted him three acres of mud flats to start an experimental clam farm. But then something unexpected happened. Green’s clamming license was taken away. Green showed up at the Brunswick town office to renew his license a day after the deadline, and he was turned away. He will not be allowed to harvest clams in Brunswick until next year. Green was furious and humiliated, he felt targeted by the town.

Devereaux, the Shellfish Warden, was apologetic. “It’s too bad,” he says. “He’s been so busy advocating, doing all this stuff,  he forgot to pick up his license.” But Devereaux said, in a town with far more men who want to dig clams than licenses to offer, rules are rules.

“If you don’t make it by Friday at 4 o’clock, you’re shit out of luck.”

On a morning in late April, Green was a different man than he had been at the meeting. His confidence was gone. Low tide was eight a.m., and for the first time in thirty-five years, Green was not digging for clams. He believes his license was taken away to make an example of him, and he’s abandoned plans for the clam farm, fearing that it could be taken away just as easily.

After years of gathering clams and trapping green crabs, Green was no longer welcome on the flats. He leaned against his truck and looked out toward the bay.

“They’re taking away from me the only thing I’ve done since I was a boy.”