On a recent warm and windy May afternoon, members of the Searsport Shellfish Management Committee and several volunteers headed to Sears Island to complete a task that is vital to the local clam population.

The group seeded a section of the clam flats on the island with 5,000 young clams, about the size of a dime. Volunteers broke off into smaller groups, with some sifting sand and others laying out a large, lightweight plastic net on the area to be seeded. From there, the volunteers marked the edges of the net with lightly drawn lines in the sand, and then dug a shallow trench around the perimeter of the net.

Others filled small plant pots with beach sand, topped them with a layer of the sifted material and placed 20 of the young clams in each of the pots. Every pot was covered with a lightweight piece of netting, secured with a rubber band, and set carefully into holes dug into the sand beside the seeding site.

Meanwhile, volunteers raked the sand in the middle of the newly dug trenches and then distributed the tiny clams throughout. Once that task was completed, volunteers placed the net back over the site, using several large rocks to anchor the protective covering.

Shellfish Committee Member Steve Tanguay explained the clams placed in the plant pots serve as a way for the committee to monitor the development of the new clams in the coming months.

The annual seeding is part of a broader effort Tanguay said has continued for more than a decade.

Along with introducing thousands of juvenile clams back into the environment every year, the committee has worked with the Maine Department of Marine Resources to conduct water testing in areas where clam flats were closed because of the presence of contaminants like mercury and remnants of a jet fuel spill during the 1970s. The clams started to make a comeback until the causeway at Sears Island was constructed during the 1980s, a development which Tanguay said triggered yet another setback for the struggling clam population.

Thanks to the work of the committee, the Department of Marine Resources and many local volunteers, Tanguay said clam flats on Long Cove that had been closed for nearly 50 years have since re-opened, but only for recreational digging.

"We want to keep it recreational so that everyone has an opportunity to go out, and dig enough for dinner or to share with friends," Tanguay said, adding the daily limit is 15 pounds. "We hope people will only take what they can eat."

In addition, more recreational shellfish licenses are available today than what was the case when the committee started its work — the number of available licenses has jumped from 20 to about 100, and Tanguay said Searsport also offers 153 three-day licenses. The shorter-term licenses are ideal for locals who want to try clamming for the first time, or for those who want to introduce clamming to visiting family or friends.

All license sales help cover the costs associated with the annual re-seeding, Tanguay said.

Tanguay said the region is still quite different from what it was during the years leading up to the 1960s, when it was the most viable commercial clam flats in the state, but said the ability to re-open more than five miles of flats to limited digging is a step in the right direction.

It also means more families have the chance to experience what it's like to dig for their own dinners, and that the committee has more opportunities to educate the public about the importance of nurturing this resource. One of the volunteers who turned out to assist with the seeding on Wednesday was a fourth-grader from Nickerson School in Swanville; Tanguay said getting the younger generation involved is key to the continued survival of the flats.

"Anyone can be a steward," he said.

One way people can help is by removing known clam predators from the flats, like the milky ribbon worm, if they happen to come across them while digging. Tanguay advised anyone who sees one of these creatures to remove it from the area immediately.

It is still too early to tell if another known predator, the invasive green crab, will pose a significant threat to the young clams.

"We're hoping the green crab population got knocked back a little by the cold winter," Tanguay said.