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Scientists to investigate polluted clam flats in Harpswell in new study

More than 400 acres of shellfish beds have been closed for several years now. A new study aims to understand why.

HARPSWELL, Maine — A study set to get underway in the upcoming weeks will focus on trying to figure out the source of pollution behind the closure of a number of shellfish beds off the coast of Harpswell.

Nearly 400 acres have been off-limits or subject to seasonal closures for several years, following the discovery of high levels of bacterial contamination by the Department of Marine Resources

Maggie Kelly and Margaret Mills, who work for FB Environmental, a Portland-based consulting firm, will be conducting the study. Both women recently went out with Harpswell Harbormaster Paul Plummer to survey the numerous amount of coves that have been impacted by pollution, a concern that's not isolated to this small fishing community.

"It's a problem a lot of coastal communities have that we can help track," Kelly said. 

Thanks to a more than $12,000 grant and funding from the town of Harpswell, scientists over the next few weeks will sample tributaries that flow into the coves to try to pin down the source of the pollution. 

"If we get hit with a human marker, that would help us work with the town to look at septic systems in the area," Kelly explained. 

Scientists will also try to determine if the contamination is coming from runoff that may contain fertilizer or waste from wildlife or livestock. 

Harpswell has about 55 shellfish harvesters and, over time, restricting fertile areas where they are allowed to harvest is impacting their livelihoods.

"They are struggling to find a way to make a living. Some have lobster licenses, others are just trying to find other work, anything to make a living," Plummer, who also serves as the marine resource manager, said. 

Scientists could issue a report by the end of the year. If the source of the contamination is failing septic systems, property owners could access town or state funds to make repairs. But, depending on the findings, it could be several years before the coves are re-opened for harvesting again.

For more information on current shellfish closures from the Department of Marine Resources, click here.   

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