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It's a crisp sunny morning in early October in the Washington County town of Pembroke and Tim Sheehan walks briskly across an empty parking lot to greet me. He'd been expecting good news about clam flats in northwestern Cobscook Bay being reopened, but instead of a parking lot full of diggers delivering clams to Gulf of Maine Inc., the seafood business on Route 1 he co-owns with his wife, Amy, there's just a quiet sunlit absence.
The flats had been closed for almost a week after an historic rainfall on Sept. 30 forced Maine's Department of Marine Resources to close the entire coast to shellfish harvesting. Even though he knows the closures are a temporary and necessary precaution — until water quality testing determines there's no longer a risk of runoff pollution contaminating soft shell clams and mussels in the tidal flats — it's still hard for Sheehan to accept another blank day on his company's ledgers.
“I'm a dealer, our business depends on clams,” he says.
He's not alone in that frustration on this bright Tuesday morning. By mid-morning, a dozen or more clammers had sent text messages asking Sheehan if the flats were open yet. Others had pulled up to his seafood warehouse in pickup trucks — some more than once as the sun advanced towards high noon — wondering the same thing.
“Still no word,” Sheehan tells them. Weathered faces nod impassively. They've been through this drill before. A full-time clammer, Kittery or Pembroke no difference, is always waiting for something — the tides to change, DMR closures to lift, prices to go up and tiny seed clams to grow to harvestable sizes.
By his own admission, patience doesn't come easily to Sheehan, who says by nature he's driven to solve problems. It's been a hallmark of the wholesale seafood business he and his wife created three years ago, when they realized the scientific specimen business they incorporated in 2002 — whose sales had plummeted with the recession — wasn't coming back fast enough to keep them in Washington County.
Their new business plan is tied to the overarching goal of creating jobs in Maine's poorest county, where 19.4% of its 32,190 residents live in poverty and the median household income, according to the Center for Workforce Research and Information, was $37,236 during 2009-13 (compared to $48,453 for Maine and $53,046 for the United States for the same period). That, inevitably, has spurred them to become creative problem-solvers on behalf of local clammers, as well as strong advocates for the state's second-most valuable fishery, which grew in value by more than $1.1 million in 2014 to $19.23 million statewide.
“It's to our advantage to build up the local clamming industry,” Tim says. “I really think there's an opportunity here to make Washington County the 'Clam Capital of Maine.' Let's see how many people we can put to work in our clam flats up here.”
A native of Aroostook County and a University of Maine graduate who focused on marine studies in earning his degree, Sheehan came to Washington County initially to teach biology in Baileyville. He and Amy, who's from Michigan, have four children ranging in age from 13 to 20. In the 25 years they've lived Downeast, the Sheehans have become, like many others, entrepreneurs — with Tim becoming a state-certified Master Guide and U.S. Coast Guard-certified captain so that he could offer seasonal eco-tours, lighthouse tours and charter fishing to supplement their family income.
Hoping to parlay Tim's marine science background and their proximity to Cobscook Bay — a unique and productive marine environment that owes its bounty to the effects of a daily 20-foot tide — they started Gulf of Maine Inc. as a “sea life” specimen business in 2002. By their own efforts and with the help of local fishermen and clammers, the Sheehans collected, packed and shipped more than 300 species of seaweed, invertebrates and fish as scientific specimens to aquariums, colleges and universities and teaching laboratories across North America. Then came the recession.
“We literally lost a $1 million contract overnight,” Amy says. “We didn't switch immediately. It took us a while to figure things out.”
“We just barely escaped filing for bankruptcy,” Tim adds. “Lots and lots of people stepped up and helped us and essentially saved our business. Machias Savings Bank went the extra mile for us … [also] the Finance Authority of Maine.”
The pivot to becoming a wholesale shellfish business in 2012 came after one of the two local clam dealers closed. The Sheehans already knew some local clammers who had supplied snails, crabs, clams and other invertebrates to their marine specimen business and thought they might be able to fill that void. It was a slow take-off: Only a dozen clammers delivered their clams to them that first year.
“At first they were very hesitant,” Amy says. It didn't help, she adds, that they closed the business during their first winter — reasoning that the lower seasonal price for clams and the considerably fewer clammers willing to work the flats in frigid weather wouldn't make it worthwhile for them to stay open. “The diggers' big risk is losing their access to the market,” she says of that first-year mistake and its important lesson.
Since a dealer's price is largely set by the market, the Sheehans soon realized that their business's success hinged on increasing the volume of softshell clams they handled. That would ensure that their buyer's margin on each purchase eventually would add up enough for them to meet their family's needs and make a profit.
By the end of 2013 a few dozen clammers were regularly delivering clams to the former marine specimen warehouse building on Route 1 the Sheehans had converted into a shellfish weighing-and-buying station. The number grew to more than 100 last year and now stands are well over 200 regular and part-time clammers from Pembroke, Perry, Robbinston, Edmunds, Eastport and the Passamaquoddy reservation at Sipayik who dig in the roughly 4,400 acres of productive clam flats in northwestern Cobscook Bay. Almost two-thirds of their regular clammers are from Sipayik, a community with historically higher unemployment than the rest of Washington County.
“We're here all day long,” Tim says. “We'll buy at 8 o'clock at night, or midnight if we have to.”
This year is shaping up to be the breakthrough year for the Sheehans: Coupled with an average price paid to clammers that's been 50 to 70 cents higher than last year's average, they anticipate Gulf of Maine's gross sales will be $2 million, or roughly double last year's sales. “Last summer, a big day for us was 30 to 50 bushels,” says Amy. “This summer, some days we had up to 150 bushels being delivered here. We've seen a big increase this year.”
The best of Gulf of Maine's clammers might deliver a bushel (roughly equal to 50 pounds) or more of clams that are at least two inches in diameter. Based on this summer's average price of $2.25 a pound and assuming 50 clammers deliver a bushel apiece to earn a little more than $100 for a half day of back-breaking labor in Cobscook's tidal flats, that's at least $5,625 flowing into the local Washington County economy on a typical day during the peak summer season.
“There is a bit of a clamming frenzy” during the summer, Tim admits. “Weather is nicer, diggers enjoy the camaraderie of going digging together and the promise of making $100 to $200 for a few hours of work is quite exciting for young and old alike.”
Early on, the Sheehans realized their success hinges on improving Cobscook Bay's clam landings by encouraging young and old alike to rethink their notions about the industry. In part because by nature they are problem-solvers — and in part because they weren't fettered by what Tim calls “the past is the future” attitudes about trying new approaches — they've taken a number of creative steps to build up their supply base of regular clammers.
Using the “microloan” community development model created by the Grameen Bank to fight poverty in Bangladesh, the Sheehans have fronted the money some would-be clammers needed to pay for the required $133 state and $100 town commercial shellfish licenses. The new clammers then repay the loan by having a portion of their earnings deducted over the first few weeks.
Likewise, he says, if a new clammer can't afford to buy a roller and hoe or boots, he'll float them a loan. He figures the business has loaned more than $12,000 in three years through its rotating microloan fund — with another $3,000 likely to be loaned by year's end. “We've lost some money on bad loans,” he says. “But overall it's working well.”
He's even taken to making the hand-held clam hoes in various sizes and selling them at cost, proudly noting, “I've made and sold more than 300 over the past two years.” They also sell locally made rollers — the half-bushel baskets that are used to carry the clams off the flats and hold them for rinsing off. The business also has given away 1,000 clam gauges made by Tim and his children out of two-inch PVC pipes, helping new clammers who can't afford to pay the $10 to $20 cost of a standard metal gauge.
Another innovation is using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to create a daily message, letting up to 150 clammers know about local closures and reopenings. They've also made customized harvesting tags with each clammer's name and license number already printed out, along with abbreviations for each local cove where harvesting is permitted. Those tags are easier for the diggers to use than the standard forms and they enable the Sheehans to build a database identifying each day's haul, with locations and quantities also identified.
And they've created a youth program in which Gulf of Maine Inc. helps young diggers get set up with everything they need to earn money during their summer vacations. This past summer 14 elementary students, 25 high school students or recent graduates and five college students participated.
“All these issues are completely solvable,” Tim says. “No money for the license? Loan them the money to pay for it. No jobs for our kids? Get them a license and let them dig clams. No transportation? Use an old school bus to pick up the diggers.”
In 2013 the value of clam landings in Washington County exceeded $4.1 million, according to the Washington County Council of Governments. The 2013 value of landings for the towns of Perry and Pembroke, suggesting the impact the Sheehans' business might already be having, was $482,631, up from $324,611 the previous year.
Dianne Tilton, executive director of the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education and a former legislator who served on the Marine Resources Committee, credits the Sheehans with bringing innovation to a tradition-bound industry. “I think what they're doing is ingenious,” she says, highlighting their use of social media as one example.
She also gives them high marks for initiating with their regular clammers a “re-seeding” program in which the business puts $1 for every bushel of clams it buys into a fund for buying baby seed clams from the Downeast Institute. Each $1 buys 200 baby clams. To date, Gulf of Maine has made two $1,000 payments and plans to make another $1,000 payment soon, paying for 600,000 baby clams that will be seeded in northwestern Cobscook Bay's flats next spring.
A 2004 Mainebiz Nexter who was honored for her earlier work as executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, a Machias-based economic development organization, Tilton says she learned from that experience that the best way to improve a local economy is to bring in money from outside its boundaries.
“Anything we can sell outside the region, those are new dollars coming in that can be spent over and over again,” she says of the clams the Sheehans sell to wholesalers supplying restaurants throughout New England. “It's fuel for our engine, so to speak.”