DMF proposal may pinch commercial crabbers
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) will hold a public hearing on Thursday September 18, at 5:30 pm, in the Tisbury Town Hall to take public comment on a proposal to establish a limit of 50 blue crabs per day for commercial fisherman. There are no current limits on the number of blue crabs a commercial fisherman holding a lobster license may harvest in Massachusetts.
DMF will also be accepting public comment Thursday on a possible three-year extension of the moratorium on harvesting river herring and other herring regulations and a proposal to prohibit cod fishing in the Cape Cod Conservation Zone during January and December.
The proposal for a crab limit originated with a letter from the Edgartown selectmen to the DMF, after the town's shellfish committee received several complaints from recreational crabbers who worried about what they described as the dwindling population of blue crabs in Edgartown Great Pond.
According to Edgartown shellfish committee chairman Cooper "Coop" Gilkes, these complaints focused on a few commercial fisherman who took a large number of blue crabs from the pond.
"Guys were going in there and just hammering the ponds," said Mr. Gilkes in a phone interview with The Times this week. "So there was a group that came into the committee and asked us to do something about it. We put a letter into the state, through the selectmen, to put a limit for commercial crabbing. They hit Great Pond very heavily last year and this year there are no crabs in that pond at all."
Along with concerns for the health of the Island's blue crab population members of the shellfish committee were anxious to protect recreational crabbers' ability to get an appropriate share. Currently, recreational crabbers are limited to 50 crabs per day.
"We were concerned that if it kept going as it was going, you would get four or five people decimating the pond's population," said Mr. Gilkes. "The recreational folks wouldn't even have a chance."
A local commercial fisherman disputes the contention that commercial fishermen are responsible for this year's reduced blue crab population. Citing a 2004 report prepared by Martha's Vineyard Commission water resource planner, William Wilcox, on the ecology of the blue crab in Tisbury Great Pond, Tom Turner pointed to biological reasons for this year's diminished population.
"The commercial fishing community believes that the selectmen's view is very shortsighted and a personal type of opinion," said Mr. Turner, in a phone conversation this week. "The actual biology indicates that there is a lack of crab in Edgartown's Great Pond because of natural biological occurrences, mainly that great pond was not opened long enough and at the right time in past years to spawn blue crabs. Over the past 50 years the crab population has been consistently inconsistent."
Mr. Wilcox's report finds that the blue crab depends on inlet saltwater ponds, like Tisbury and Edgartown great ponds, for their main habitat and for their highly specialized spawning process.
The crabs lay their eggs in these protected waters and then rely on the beaches that protect the ponds from the ocean being opened, allowing the eggs to disperse into the open ocean where they mature. Blue crabs also depend on the ponds being open when they are ready to return to the ponds, where they live for the remainder of their lives.
The report adds that "a delay in cutting the inlet or a failed inlet may stimulate crabs to produce eggs but not allow the larvae to escape the pond, leading to reproductive failure" of the population.
Great ponds and other inlet ponds on the south shore of Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Chilmark are opened regularly. Mr. Turner believes that better understanding of when to open the ponds, coincident with the crabs reproductive cycle, would do more for the crab population than regulating fisherman.
Anyone may petition the DMF for a rule change, but only a few are approved, according to Vineyard-based DMF marine biologist Greg Skomal.
"We try and make sure that marine resources are not over exploited, allowing for a reasonable catch for both commercial and recreational fishermen," said Mr. Skomal this week. "We looked into it and found it to be a meaningful measure that was worthy of a proposal."