Althea Bennett McGirr says, “It shucks to be a clam!”

Posted on Dec 20, 2016

Althea Bennett McGirr, a Board member since 2011, doesn’t need Friends of Casco Bay to tell her that the chemistry of Casco Bay is changing. She has seen the effects of Coastal Acidification firsthand.

 

At the annual Labor Day clambake on Little Diamond Island, Althea and her sister Priscilla help out at the end-of-the-season event that draws the community together for a farewell to summer. While the lobsters, sweet potatoes, sausages, and corn are roasting in a fire pit outside the hundred year-old Casino, their job is to wash and de-sand freshly harvested Casco Bay clams.

Althea recalls scooping huge handfuls of clams into 8 heavy kettles to steam them for the feast. Nowadays, they have to place the clams into the pot delicately, or else the shells may end up chipped or even shattered. Althea says that the clams they buy now are smaller and more fragile than the ones she
recalls from years back.

Althea’s observations seem to correspond to observations Friends of Casco Bay has been making over the years. We are studying Coastal Acidification, the problem of increasing acidity from the ocean absorbing carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels, and, we believe, from excess nitrogen washing into coastal waters by stormwater runoff. Fertilizers, sewage discharges, and pet wastes trigger algae blooms that add excess carbon dioxide to coastal waters.

The pitted shell shows that life can be tough for a clam spat in acidic mud.

Our data shows that the acidity of Casco Bay has increased since we began our water quality monitoring program nearly 25 years ago. In 2011, we began sampling the pH (acidity) of mudflat sediments, where soft-shell clams live. We found that the mud nearest to shore was more acidic (had lower pH) than sediments further away from sources of land-based pollution. Higher acidity makes it harder for shellfish to extract calcium carbonate from their environment, the material that clams, mussels, and other mollusks need to build and strengthen their shells.

In the summer of 2014, Friends of Casco Bay installed several clam “condos” in the intertidal mudflats of Recompense Bay in Freeport. Our goal was to see what would happen when we exposed juvenile clams to acidic mud. Research Associate Mike Doan caged baby clams inside PVC tubes and left them in the mud for several days. Microscope photographs of the tiny clam spat showed that after just one week, their shells had become pitted, showing signs of dissolving.