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Triumph in the Malibu mud

After years of cleanup, beach is opened to shellfishing

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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The men, a few in bright orange jackets, dotted the Malibu Beach shoreline about an hour after sunrise yesterday, raking through the black muck at water’s edge in search of soft-shell steamer clams. The shellfish went from mud to bucket to bag to crate, headed for a Stanley Seafood Co. truck.

State marine fisheries officials monitored the digging — the first time, they said, that anyone can remember the small Dorchester beach, located along the once sewer-like Boston Harbor, being opened to commercial shellfishing.

After many years of water quality testing, Malibu has been deemed “conditionally restricted,’’ or clean enough for master clam diggers to ply their trade.

The clams still must be cleaned at a state-run purification plant in Newburyport before they can be eaten, but they are nonetheless another example of how far Boston Harbor has come, say environmental advocates and longtime neighborhood residents. They also illustrate how far the harbor still has to go.

“I have a lot of confidence that the Boston Harbor clams on the market are both terrific and safe. But you have to recognize that they’re terrific and safe after they’ve been treated in Newburyport, and I’m always a little wistful when I say that,’’ said Bruce Berman, a spokesman for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an environmental advocacy group. “As an environmentalist and a person who loves clams, I sure look forward to the day that I can dig one, crack it, and eat it on the beach.’’

Boston Harbor was once a national embarrassment filled with raw sewage, and former President George H.W. Bush called it the “filthiest in America.’’ The cleanup has been a decadeslong effort forced by the Clean Water Act and a landmark court order. Billions have been spent to modernize sewer systems and treatment plants throughout Greater Boston.

Malibu Beach was created in the 1930s from land filled for Old Colony Boulevard, now Morrissey Boulevard, in Dorchester. State officials have been testing its water for more than a decade, pulling hundreds of samples during all seasons.

Glenn Casey, a biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said recent tests show the beach was clean enough to start allowing some harvesting of Malibu’s 19-acre intertidal shellfish flat.

Not all commercial shellfishermen may harvest from a restricted beach like Malibu, however. Only those holding a “master digger’’ license, or licensed fishermen working under the supervision of a master digger, may take shellfish from restricted areas.

Master diggers are subject to the most stringent regulations, including the requirement that they drive their haul to the purification plant along prescribed routes. There are only seven licensed master diggers in the state, according to Massachusetts regulators.

Malibu, Casey said, will be open to approved diggers about once a week from now until March 31, with strict limits on the harvest.

“It’s a small area. It could get dug out real fast, so it’s just to ensure that it lasts,’’ Casey said. “We’re taking it slowly. We’re going to see how the clams test at the plant.’’

Yesterday, a dozen shellfishermen — 1 master and 11 subordinates — arrived at daylight to work the shore, where they traipsed over ice-encrusted marsh in rubber boots that reached to their hips. Casey called the men a “hardcore’’ crew that harvests in less popular winter months. They culled just over 21 bushels of clams — more than 1,000 pounds — by about 9:30 a.m.

One of the subordinates, Chet MacDonald, 79, started digging clams when he was 11, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.

He took a few years off to work for an oil company, and returned to the trade in 1989 because he liked the freedom.

“You’re outside, see all the animals — seals, ducks, worms, razor clams, other people,’’ MacDonald said after tallying his haul for the day — two bushels that he figured would net $90 total. “You’re your own boss. Whatever you work, you make. You don’t work, you don’t get paid.’’

The wild harvest of shellfish in Massachusetts is an $18 million a year industry, said Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game.

In the last several years, the state has opened a number of shellfish flats, in part because of a Boston Harbor restoration program that has planted more than 5 million clams at nearly 30 sites. In October, the state reopened flats at Casey’s Beach, another restricted area in Hull.

“In a tough economy, it’s a great jobs story,’’ Griffin said yesterday. “If we’re able to open shellfish beds for harvest, that’s contributing jobs and economic opportunity.’’

John Moran, a trustee of the Historic Savin Hill Advocates, a neighborhood association, said having commercial shellfishermen working Malibu’s flats will improve the area, making it safer in early morning hours and drawing visitors curious about the trade.

“I take it as a positive sign,’’ he added, “returning the harbor to its fullness of productivity.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.