AUGUSTA — State lawmakers must find $120,000 to maintain funding for three scientists who inspect shellfish beds, which are critical to Maine’s $20 million-a-year shellfish industry, Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said Tuesday.

“These three positions must be maintained in order to ensure public health and safety, ensure uninterrupted services to the shellfish industry, and protect the Maine shellfish brand and economy,” said Snowe-Mello, Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.

Snowe-Mello and other members of the committee told the Appropriations Committee that they agree unanimously with Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed marine resources budget, except for the omission of funding for the scientists.

The legislators recommended — by unanimous, bipartisan vote — adding money for the positions to the two-year budget that would take effect July 1.

Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he wants to check with the LePage administration to see “what the wishes are of the governor.”

“I don’t want to be terribly critical of the executive branch,” he said. “A lot of things fall through the cracks, and this may be one of them.”

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, said Tuesday evening that the administration is working with the committee to find a solution.

The Legislature created the positions in 2009, after the state closed shellfish beds from Kittery to Harpswell in response to a determination by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that “Maine was not in compliance with federal requirements,” said the Marine Resources Committee’s report.

Snowe-Mello and other committee members said the state’s shellfish industry must stay in compliance with federal rules so clammers can sell shellfish across state lines. Clammers have been a visible presence at the State House since last week as they have discussed the issue with lawmakers.

“A dirty lobster or a bad clam, and we lose billions of dollars,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford. “This needs to work and we have to play ball with the feds.”

Lawmakers funded the positions through fees for subsurface wastewater disposal systems, fees paid by public sewage treatment plants, and overboard discharge surcharges.

Those sources haven’t produced enough money to support the positions over the long term, said Patrick Keliher, acting deputy commissioner for the Department of Marine Resources. He said funding for the positions will run out in June 2012. The additional $120,000 requested would keep the positions funded through 2016, he said.

Commissioner Darryl Brown of the Department of Environmental Protection said he will examine his budget to look for funding. He said the state should add to the number of people who inspect the shellfish beds.

“These positions are what we need to keep, to maintain a minimum level of performance,” he said.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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