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conch

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The Division of Marine Fisheries is proposing rule changes intended to make local fresh striped bass, shown in this photo taken last summer at The Net Result, available in markets longer. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has proposed significant regulatory changes that would affect conch and striped bass, two species that are at the core of Martha’s Vineyard’s small but persistent commercial fishing industry.

The DMF proposals include a reduction in the striped bass daily trip limit, a prohibition against charter fishermen engaging in commercial fishing with clients on board, and a reduction in fishing days per week. An increase in the minimum size of knobbed whelk, commonly referred to as conch, is also proposed.

DMF officials said the changes are intended to lengthen the striped bass season, increase tagging and monitoring of various species, and increase several fishery populations on which Island fishermen and markets rely.

Conch shell and egg sack.
Conch shell and egg sack.

The conch may not be as glamorous as the striped bass, but according to the most recent DMF statistics, just shy of three million pounds of conch was harvested statewide in 2012, at a value of roughly $6 million. Vineyard conch fishermen, who accounted for 24 of the 91 state permits, hauled in 1,094,127 pounds, adding over $2 million dollars to the local economy.

The increase in the minimum size limit is intended to allow the conch more time to reach sexual maturity. “To limit further depletion of the knobbed whelk resource,” DMF is proposing to increase the minimum size for knobbed whelk from 2 ¾ inches to 2 ⅞ inches for 2014 and 3 inches beginning in 2015.

DMF will hold a public hearing on the slate of proposed rules changes on Tuesday, February 18, at 9:30 am in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Additional hearings are scheduled in Plymouth and Gloucester.

Fewer fishing days

Striped bass have long been a prized gamefish on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as a best-seller for fish markets and restaurants. State recreational and commercial fishing regulations must fall within guidelines set by theAtlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a 15-member body responsible for managing species and implementing management plans along the East Coast.

DMF is proposing to reduce the number of open commercial fishing days, now four, to as few as two per week; reduce the daily trip limit from 30 fish per day to as low as 10 fish per day for boat permit holders and two fish per day for rod and reel permit holders; move the current opening date of July 12 to as early as June 1; create a control date after which DMF would allow limited entry into the fishery; allow the at-sea filleting of all recreationally caught species under certain conditions (filleting would remain prohibited for private recreational anglers catching striped bass); hold charter captains liable for violations of recreational fishing regulations that occur onboard the for-hire vessel; and prohibit charter captains who are taking out paying customers from also keeping striped bass under a commercial license.

Only licensed fishermen and dealers may sell striped bass, subject to strict reporting requirements. DMF sets a quota. In past years, the commercial season was opened, usually in early July, and closed once the quota was reached, often by early August.

DMF assistant director Dan McKiernan told The Times that an accumulation of bait off Chatham in recent years has caused striped bass to gather off Chatham, attracting commercial fishermen.

“It’s a gold rush,” Mr. McKiernan said. “We’re talking 400 boats bumping into one another. It looks like the Jaws scene where the boats were all on top of one another trying to catch the shark.”

The resulting glut of fish lowers the market price and shortens the season. The proposed regulations are intended to spread the season out. “Two days a week will allow the season to stretch out, as will the lower bag limit,” Mr. McKiernan said.

He said prohibiting a charter fisherman from commercially fishing would also help. “You can’t call someone crew who you just met this morning and will never see again,” said Mr. McKiernan. “This crossover, it just isn’t defendable.”

Fish markets and restaurants, primary buyers, would also be required to “affix a DMF-issued, lockable, single-use, tamper-evident, and non-transferable striped bass identification tag” to any fish after purchasing a fish from a commercial fisherman.

The tagging proposals are the result of concerns about fraudulent interstate shipments. Mr. McKiernan said, “There were fish showing up in Maryland, 20 inches, which would be illegal there, that had our tags on them.”

For and against

The spring migration of striped bass generally provides good fishing for local charter fishermen. During the summer months they must rely on mostly local fish. Island fishermen and fish market owners had mixed feelings on the proposals.

Menemsha Charter captain Scott McDowell, fishing his 24th year as North Shore Charters, supported the measures. “The less pressure you put on the biomass the better,” he told The Times. “We had a great recovery, and then unregulated commercial fishermen came in like a vacuum. You can’t catch a fish on Squibby anymore. I support commercial fishing, but not this damaging. This is going to lengthen the season.”

Mr. McDowell said he has long favored restricting charter captains from also fishing commercially while clients are on board. “I don’t think that should be allowed,” he said. “It’s double dipping. I sell bluefish that I get while chartering though, so it’s a tough one.”

More importantly, he stressed, the proposals would bolster striped bass populations, on which he and other Island fishermen rely throughout the season. “The less pressure on the bass the better,” he said.

Aquinnah charter captain William “Buddy” Vanderhoop, who has been fishing Tomahawk Charters out of Menemsha for 30 years, agreed that the reduced bag limit is a good idea.

“I’m all for reducing down to 10 fish a day. Thirty fish is a little excessive,” he said.

“I’m all for opening the season up in June, because striped bass is our best homegrown fish and the season usually ends in seven weeks, not even going until September,” he said. “Our best product runs out. It’ll be amazing for restaurants and people who sell fish.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said he is against prohibiting charters from fishing commercially for striped bass with clients aboard. “I might get 3-4 extra fish a day without the regulation, to subsidize the cost of fuel, which is killing us,” he said. “I fought hard to keep the charter boats allowed to sell fish. This proposal will ultimately mean I’d have to go back out after my charter day ends to fish commercially.”

At the height of the season, local Island fish markets provide fresh striped bass to customers anxious to purchase locally caught fresh fish.

“By lowering the limit on striped bass, the price will go up and the season will be longer,” Stanley Larsen, owner of Menemsha Market, said. “It’ll hurt me because I’ll be paying more for the striped bass, but the proposals are a step in the right direction for fisheries management.”

Mr. Larsen is less concerned by the extra time that would be required to comply with the new tagging regulations. “I don’t think the tagging proposal will affect me,” he said. “More fishermen will sell their bass to the back doors of restaurants though.”

Louis Larsen, owner of The Net Result in Vineyard Haven, favors the proposed regulations. “Thirty fish is a little greedy. I’d rather see 10 fish every day for a longer time than a bunch at once,” he said. “That way, we still have a product to sell.”

He is less pleased with the tagging proposals. “The tagging hasn’t been a problem in the past because you didn’t have to tag in-state. If you have to keep track of the tags it’s unnecessary time,” he said.

Public comment on the proposed regulations will be accepted by email until 5 pm on February 21. Mail should be sent electronically to jared.silva@state.ma.us, 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/.