At a lengthy Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) public hearing Tuesday morning in Vineyard Haven to discuss proposed regulatory changes that would affect conch and striped bass, Martha’s Vineyard fishermen spoke strongly about the need to preserve the fishery for the next generation through stronger conservation measures and more vigorous regulatory enforcement.
More than 30 people attended the hearing in the Katharine Cornell theatre, one of three scheduled in port communities. Those in attendance included Island commercial fishermen and fish dealers.
The unglamourous but highly profitable whelk, more popularly known as conch, was the focus of much of the early discussion. With demand high, longtime fishermen said they are seeing more and more pots in the waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard, many of which they claimed are being illegally fished.
Conch pot fisherman Sam Hopkins of West Tisbury expressed frustration with fishermen who are no longer actively fishing but allow others to use the tags that must be affixed to each pot. Mr. Hopkins said there is an inordinate amount of gear spread over a huge area and those pots, combined with a lack of enforcement would only expedite the collapse of the channel whelk. “We’ve known it’s been in trouble for a long time,” Mr. Hopkins said.
He also decried the lack of stiff penalties for those caught breaking the rules. “What’s the incentive to not bend the rules if there’s no enforcement?” he asked.
Tom Searle said he had seen three environmental police officers assigned to the Vineyard in the past three years. “There’s no excuse for this lack of enforcement,” he said.
Underscoring the Vineyard tradition of pushing for more, not less restrictive conservation measures, several fishermen endorsed a proposal to increase the minimum size for whelk.
Reiterating his concerns for the future of the fishery, Mr. Hopkins said draggers disturb the bottom and dislocate whelk seed which then ends up washing up on the beach.
On the topic of enforcement, DMF director Paul Diodati said his agency had no control over law enforcement but would pass on the concerns of the Island fishermen.
A proposal by DMF to create a limited entry pot fishery restricted to owner/operators and require that new fishermen have between one and five years of full-time or equivalent part-time fishing experience generated discussion about the qualifications to be a fisherman and how many years should be required.
DMF Deputy Director Dan McKiernan said that DMF is scrutinizing “what it means to be a commercial fisherman.” The question, Mr. McKiernan said, was how to allocate permits to the next generation.
Also Tuesday, DMF presented a slate of proposed changes to the commercial striped bass fishery. The most significant would put Massachusetts in step with states along the coast that now require all fish brought to market to be tagged.
The primary buyer in a commercial transaction “by sale, barter or exchange” will be required to affix a DMF tag to the fish and the tag would follow the fish even once filleted. It would be illegal to purchase a fish without a tag.
Alec Gale, a Menemsha-based fish buyer who ships striped bass to a sister company in Boston said his business is constantly getting undercut by fishermen who sell to restaurants. Mr. McKiernan said the new tagging system would make it illegal for a restaurant to purchase a striper without a tag.
Proposals designed to reduce short-term market gluts and lengthen the commercial striped bass season, only 16 days in 2012 and 2013, generated considerable discussion. A proposal to reduce the daily bag limit from 30 to as low as 10 fish per day drew a strong response from Lev Wlodyka of Chilmark, one of the Island’s most accomplished striped bass fishermen.
Mr. Wlodyka said reducing the bag limit to ten fish would penalize the best fishermen and open up the fishery to anyone. He asked DMF to create a limited fishery open only to those who could prove they were commercially fishing striped bass.
In 2013, DMF issued 2,951 boat permits with striped bass endorsements, which allow fishermen onboard to fish commercially, and 1,058 rod and reel permits for commercial shore fishermen. Of those, fewer than 200 accounted for the majority of the striped bass harvest, according to DMF.
Alex Friedman of Edgartown, a commercial fisherman and president of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, said he supported eliminating Sunday from the commercial season and maintaining the 30 fish bag limit. Why punish those who are skilled at catching fish and committed to the fishery, he asked. “The health of our commercial fishery has to be maintained,” he said.
An accumulation of bait off Chatham in recent years has caused
striped bass to gather off Chatham, attracting commercial fishermen.
The resulting glut of fish lowers the market price and shortens the season.
Over the past several years commercial landings in Dukes County have plummeted. Fishermen endorsed an earlier start to the commercial season, now July 12, to early June, a move that would favor Island fishermen who now must watch Chatham-based fishermen catch the bulk of the fish.
A question about why Rhode island fishermen are allowed to commercially fish in Mass water provided a brief lesson in federal commerce law. Mr. Diodati said it is a question he hears often. He explained that because the fishery is open it must be open to all. That would change if DMF made a limited entry fishery.
Noting recent poor year classes of young fish in the Chesapeake, fisherman Brice Contessa asked about what the future might hold. Mr. Diodati said the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) would likely reduce quotas when they meet next in May.
Mr. Diodati said he would not be surprised to see the recreational bag limit reduced from 2 fish to 1, and a 30 percent cut in the commercial quota for 2015.
Public comment on the proposed regulations will be accepted by email until 5 pm on February 21. Mail should be sent electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org, or posted to 251 Causeway St., Suite 400, Boston, MA 02114. A full copy of the proposed regulations is available at mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dmf/.