Tim LaRochelle stuffed a fried clam into his 2-year-old daughter’s mouth on television to make a point.

With red tide advisories dominating the news for so long, many consumers are afraid to eat clams sold locally even though they’re safe.

LaRochelle, owner of Always Fresh LaRochelle Seafoods in Auburn, said nobody has fallen ill from eating clams affected by the toxic algae blooms since the 1970s.

Just try telling that to some of his customers.

The scare has driven down demand while the clam flat closures have driven up prices. Along with consumers, seafood vendors and restaurants like LaRochelle’s are paying the price.

Although he can still find clams for his customers, he hasn’t been buying as many. Last year, he sold nearly 50 bushels over the July 4 weekend. This year, he plans to buy fewer so he won’t get stuck with the surplus.

“I’m kind of apprehensive because people are afraid to eat them,” he said.

Prices for clams have nearly doubled at times since the warnings went into effect last spring.

Michael Vallee, co-owner of the Village Inn Restaurant and Lounge in Auburn, saw the per gallon price climb from roughly $60 to a high of $92.

Even though he raised the prices for the more than half-dozen clam dishes on his menu, he was still losing money, he said.

“When I did the math, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.'”

But, he would rather hike his prices than take clams off the menu. A restaurant known for its seafood offerings has a reputation to uphold, he said.

“The customers have to understand we have to raise prices to cover our costs.”

Fewer people are ordering the clam dishes despite the strict regulation the state has put on clam diggers. Restaurants can buy bags of clams only if they are tagged with special labels showing they came from safe flats.

“People are scared,” he said. “They think twice.”

Areas closed by the state can change daily. LaRochelle said flats open one day might be closed the next day. That doesn’t mean the clams dug there the day before would make you sick. State officials close flats long before levels of red tide in those areas would cause illness, he said.

None of the local retailers remembered red tide advisories that covered this much of the Gulf of Maine or lasted this long.

The closures prompted the U.S. Small Business Administration on Thursday to offer low-interest federal disaster loans to affected businesses in 14 or Maine’s 16 counties, including Androscoggin.

At Mac’s Seafood in Auburn, you can’t buy clams. Since the Harpswell flats were closed, store owner Charles Lazaro has gone without clams for about six weeks.

He is unimpressed with the quality of the unaffected clams that come from farther up the Maine coast. Although it’s put about a 20 percent dent in his sales, he said the grittier, chewier clams aren’t tasty enough to grace his shelves.

It hasn’t been a problem.

“We hardly have people ask for them anymore,” he said.


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