DMF biologist Greg Skomal moves to the mainland


Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) marine biologist Greg Skomal has moved with his wife and family from Martha’s Vineyard. The go-to guy for fish questions has a new job within the agency and a new house in Marion.

This is a positive development for Greg, who assumes more responsibility, and for the agency, which will benefit from his energy and intellect. But there is a bittersweet quality to the news for Islanders who had grown accustomed to Greg’s accessibility.

Find a fish you could not identify? See a fin in the water? Have a question about false albacore? “Call Greg,” was always the simple answer.

Greg — or Dr. Skomal when his state bosses trot him in front of the media cameras to deliver the startling news that, yes, there are sharks in the ocean — has been a familiar presence on the Vineyard for more than 23 years. He was a frequent visitor to local tackle shops and a moderating influence on the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee.

I served on the committee for many years with Greg. He is a sensible guy. Perhaps his only lapse in judgment was when he agreed to be chairman of the committee. I suspect he finds a stint in a shark cage less stressful than some Derby meetings.

Greg was a DMF sportfisheries biologist and shark expert leading a relatively quiet, professional life on the Vineyard until the unmistakable theme of a cello and bass drifted over Vineyard Sound: da-dum, da-dum, SHARK!

On Sept. 21, 2004 a 14-foot, 1,700-pound female great white shark was discovered swimming lazily around in a deep, narrow inlet leading north from Lackey’s Bay at the east end of Naushon.

Greg was in big demand and handled the cameras well. In so many words he reassured people they had a greater chance of being killed and devoured by a neighbor than a great white (my words, not his).

Every summer since, whenever someone sees a fin off a beach the media, hungry for a summer story, plays up the shark scare. Greg added a new specialty to his resume: shark biology sound bites.

The arrival of great whites in Massachusetts waters also provided a team Greg led with a remarkable achievement. Last September, the team tagged five great whites near Chatham. It was the first successful tagging of the species in the Atlantic Ocean, using electronic satellite technology.

The results were reported at a press conference in March (March 4, “No privacy for traveling great whites“).

The first tag — which was placed on a 12-foot shark — surfaced on January 15, 50 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, and began transmitting data. Two weeks later, the second tag — which was placed on a 10-foot shark — surfaced on February 4, 30 miles north of where the first tag appeared. A third tag appeared off the coast of Florida, 80 miles south of the first two tags, on March 1.

The sharks reappeared off Chatham this summer. Once again, Greg is answering probing questions from the media: Why have the sharks returned (seals); and what color bathing suits do great whites prefer (just kidding)?

Generally speaking, he said, there is more of a media frenzy than a shark frenzy. Someone says he or she saw a shark and before the report is confirmed it is part of the daily news cycle.

“There are sharks in the ocean and we’ve known that for centuries,” Greg said. “What I tell people to do is to look at the risk and look at the probability. The last shark attack was in 1936.”

People need to use common sense too. Do not dress like a seal and dive off Chatham. “There is a low probability, don’t increase it,” Greg said.

On the other end of the fearsome scale is the clownfish, a little fish that could be a stunt double for the lead character in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo.”

It is not widely known that Greg is the author of “Clownfishes in the Aquarium” (2004, THF Publications) and “Saltwater Aquariums for Dummies” (2005, For Dummies).

I spoke with Greg about his transition several weeks ago, a stone’s throw from the craziness of the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament.

Greg’s journey to Martha’s Vineyard began while he was working on a master’s degree at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s apex predator program. Then DMF director Randy Fairbanks wanted to establish regional biologists throughout the state. Greg applied for the job and was assigned to Martha’s Vineyard.

He figured he would give it five years because he wanted to continue working in the field of shark research. “It just kept getting better and better, and I fell in love with the Island,” Greg said.

Not just the Island. Greg met his wife Kimberly. The couple has a three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter. That was a game changer, he said. “It moved very quickly from being about Greg Skomal to being about the Skomal family and how do I continue to grow professionally,” he said.

Greg had an opportunity to move up within DMF due to a regional reorganization of the agency but that meant leaving the Island. Greg will continue to head up various research projects designed around large pelagic species.

One change that will affect Massachusetts recreational fishermen is the requirement to possess a saltwater fishing license. Greg is hopeful that with input from fishermen the revenues the license will provide will enhance the fishery.

Greg will work out of an office in New Bedford. It is a big switch from an office down a quiet side street overlooking Lagoon Pond.

Greg said one of the hardest parts of the move was saying goodbye to the fishing community of Martha’s Vineyard, the men and women who are his friends.

“I worked very hard to build a house and I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Greg said. “Realizing I’m not going to be able to hang out at Coop’s or Larry’s or Dick’s and talk to the fishermen is the hard part.”

Commercial striped bass fishing

From all reports, Island commercial striped bass fishermen are having a slow season. I stopped in to The Net Result on Beach Road during one of the market’s very brief lulls.

Jeffrey Maida, the market’s right hand man, told me that much of the bass on the market is coming from north of the Cape.

He said the Menemsha fleet has been quiet. Whether that is due to a lack of fish associated with warm water temperatures or lack of fishing effort is unclear. The current price paid for a whole fish is approximately $3.50 per pound.

Brant McAfee of the DMF Annisquam River Marine Fisheries Station provided me with numbers from 2009 and 2010 Massachusetts commercial striped bass landings. He said these landings represent dealer reported quantities of striped bass landed during the first four weeks of the fishing season.

In 2009, commercial bass fishermen landed 675,698 pounds, or 61.03-percent of the 1,107,118 pound quota. In 2010, fishermen during the same reporting periodlanded 695,856, or 61.66-percent of the 1,128,577 pound commercial quota.

Chappy uproar

Chappaquiddick is in an uproar. The Trustees of Reservations Chappy superintendent David Babson resigned on Friday.

Dave was popular with fishermen and island residents. His unwilling departure in the middle of the summer comes as a shock for all concerned with use of the Trustees’ many wonderful properties.

I am always concerned when a new person takes charge of a property that I am accustomed to visiting. Not everyone values our nation’s hunting and fishing culture.

I met Dave on a number of occasions after he took on his new job and was relieved to find he had an easy manner with people. I was heartened by his vision of property use, and I am sad to think he is out of a job.

I have also known Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional superintendent, for many years. So I am not ready to grab a pitchfork and torch.

Chris has done his best to provide public access while juggling strict state and federal regulations, bird advocates who would like to get rid of people, Chappy residents who would like to get rid of people (those other people), fishermen who would like to get rid of the birds and the Chappy people, skunks, raccoons, and dumb tourists.

It is an unfortunate situation all around.

Lost tackle bag

A young man lost a blue tackle bag full of lures at Lobsterville Beach Sunday night. He would like to get it back. If you found it please make him happy and call Ben at 508-693-7839.