Fishermen must do more to provide managers with good data

Ned Casey of Edgartown (left) and his brother John Casey, with one of two hefty striped bass John caught slinging Sluggos off the beach last week. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) met on Martha’s Vineyard. Following the conclusion of the meeting, I left with the distinct impression that state fisheries officials and environmental police spend a great deal of time trying to keep commercial fishermen from sawing off the branch on which they sit.

For those of you not familiar with the 15-member MFC, it is a diverse group that includes commercial fishermen, charter captains and recreational fishermen. It wields a great deal of authority over Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) regulations and policies.

Paul Diodati, DMF executive director, introduced the group to a small number of people in attendance that included Vineyard commercial fishermen sitting in the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven on a sunny afternoon when they likely would have preferred to be fishing. Mr. Diodati said the commission represents all facets of the fishing industry.

The Vineyard meeting was unusual and part of an effort by MFC chairman Mark Amorello, a South Shore fisherman, to move outside of the Boston area and around the fishing community.

One of the first regulatory issues to be discussed was black sea bass, a popular table fish caught in state waters. DMF currently licenses about 1,500 commercial, mostly rod and reel, fishermen, and 60 pot fishermen in a fishery that has greatly expanded since 2008.

Pot fishermen are restricted to 200 pounds per trip. Rod and reelers have an 80-pound limit. But not everyone plays by the rules.

“It’s pretty obvious to us that there are some shenanigans going on,” Mr. Diodati said as he described efforts by fishermen to find loopholes in the rules.

Mr. Diodati proposed a freeze on the issuance of any new commercial permits. “I think its time for us to slow things down,” he said. “I believe it is the right thing to do.”

How do fishermen work the system? Prior to the opening of the recreational season a commercial fisherman figured out a way to run a charter with a paying party from New York. Legally, he could not take out a recreational charter party but he declared that the fishermen were his crew and then sold the fish they caught back to his “crew” for the cost of the charter.

Environmental Police were at first stymied, but they bagged him because he exceeded the 80-pound limit.

Later in the meeting, Paul Diodati, a biologist by training, described a frustrating situation. Only five percent of the state’s 6,325 non-federally permitted commercial fishermen fully comply with DMF’s catch reporting rules, which require fishermen to file monthly catch reports by the 15th of the following month.

The other 95 percent wait, sometimes until it is time to renew their commercial licenses. That creates a one-year lag time in the accumulation of the data that influences quotas. For example, DMF assistant director Dan McKiernan said there is currently no 2011 up-to-date catch data for whelk, also known as conch, one of the Vineyard’s most important and lucrative commercial fisheries.

“It is time to get tougher,” Mr. Diodati told the MFC. “All fisheries are quota managed and it is pretty difficult to manage fishing if you don’t know where you are at.”

Mr. Diodati said that currently there is no penalty beyond withholding the license to force compliance.

In some cases, DMF gathers a full year of data in one day when a guy who needs to renew his permit stands at a counter filling out a form.

No accurate data directly affects the livelihood of fishermen. Without good data fisheries management becomes even more of a guessing game than already exists.

On Wednesday, DMF closed the commercial black sea fishery because the admittedly small quota has been reached. There appear to be plenty of fish. What is lacking is good data.

Fishing is great

The fishing report is, “go fishing.” I have not wandered far to catch striped bass. I suspect other fishermen are also enjoying good action. The benefit of all this fun has been fresh striped bass to share with neighbors and friends.

This weekend, Dick’s Bait & Tackle in Oak Bluffs will host its 20th Annual Memorial Day Weekend Derby. If you plan to fish you might consider joining the fun. More information is available on this page or call 508-693-7669, or go to