%978%right%Many decades after she chose it as her major at Colby, Jane McLeod Hinson '53 has rediscovered her fascination with biology.
She owes it to clams.
For the past nine years, Hinson has served on the board of directors of the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, which runs Maine's first and only public shellfish hatchery. For most of her tenure, Hinson has served as board chairwoman.
The institute grows clams to reseed defunct clam flats all along the briny coast of Maine.
"Clams aren't very sexy," explained Hinson, 76, in a telephone interview from her home in the downeast community of Machias. "Mention lobster and people snap right to attention. Clams are just sort of there."
Downeast Institute is a rising star in Maine's marine research sector. Last spring the completed acquisition of eight acres of land and a former lobster pound on Great Wass Island allowed for a significant expansion of the institute. The $1.3-million deal was five years in the making and was made possible by funding from Maine Technology Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The acquisition allows the institute to expand its research, hatchery, education, and business incubation goals. While the institute is moving into the growing scallops and lobsters, its mainstay has been clams. The hatchery produces 10,000,000 clams a year, most no bigger than a fingernail and sold in lots of 1,000. The reseeding program has gradually shown coastal communities a modern way to maintain a traditional industry, Hinson said. Productive clam flats require careful management as well as control of septic waste, which has fouled many flats, she said.
"We try to get them past the native suspicion to acceptance and participation," she explained. "It took quite a while before the clammers recognized that management and working with scientists was feasible. Initially, people thought it was an idea that wouldn't necessarily work. There was a 'show me' attitude, particularly downeast. But once you showed results, they got real excited."
Now more than 40 communities rely on hatchery clams to maintain viable clam flats. Each restored clam flat creates more employment as more diggers can work there, Hinson said.
Hinson had initially planned a science career but postponed it while she raised four children. "I didn't have that kind of time."
A journalist, she and her now ex-husband owned and ran a weekly newspaper, the Calais Advertiser. Later she held public relations positions in the Maine paper industry and at the University of New Brunswick. She returned to Maine and took a position with the University of Maine Machias, eventually becoming director of special programs there, a job she held until 1997. It was there that she first started hearing about the work of Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at UM Machias who was the driving force behind the hatchery. Their offices were in the same building. Upon retirement, she joined the board of the fledgling Downeast Institute.
"It was a chance to get back into biology," she said. "It all came right back. I had such a good general education as well as an excellent science education. It never really left me."
Growing clams requires a working knowledge of tidal flows, clean water, and protection from predators like green crabs and moon snails, she said. "Because it is a biological entity, it is not perfect," she said. "Each clam flat is kind of a challenge. What is the best density, what's the best protection, what part of the flat is more likely to result in better growth?"
Most rewarding has been improving the quality of life for job-scarce downeast communities, she said. "I think aquaculture is the way of the future,"Hinson said. "You can control the resource. It's not left up to the whims of nature."