The quest for conch has no pot of gold

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Tom Turner and sternman Mike Ryan prepare fragrant bait bags for 140 or so conch pots. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The squealing winch on Sea Raven slowly raised a conch pot from the briny deep of Nantucket Sound on a recent September morning. With each turn of the cog, the anticipation grew — would it be filled with valuable conch, or a swarm of worthless spider crabs? How many conch, or more accurately, channel whelk or knob whelk, would be big enough to keep? Would there be something totally unexpected, like a tropical fish that hitched a late-summer ride on the Gulf Stream? The possible outcomes are limitless, and that’s part of the appeal of conch fishing to Tom Turner, owner and captain of the Sea Raven.

“I love the hunt; this never gets old to me,” he told The Times on the seesawing deck of his 40-foot Canadian lobster boat. When the pot broke the surface, it revealed a disappointing haul — 10 conch were in the suitcase-size trap, and maybe half were over 3 inches, the minimum width set by the Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF) for the 2015 season.

Mr. Turner piloted the boat for the next yellow and black buoy. The football-size buoys are imperceptible to the naked eye on the vast expanse of Nantucket Sound. But Mr. Turner, guided by GPS, a gyrocompass, and a waterproof notebook filled with hieroglyphics of numbers and letters that only he can decode, has no trouble finding them.

Once he does, he hooks the buoy with a pole gaff, except when the buoy is submerged, which requires using a grapple, a multipronged hook that looks like a jumbo squid jig. Then he loops the rope on the winch, engages the motor, and the anticipation begins anew.

The pots are set in “strings,” with anywhere from 12 to 20 pots. Mr. Turner dropped the pots in relatively shallow water, between 30 and 50 feet, in an area halfway between the Vineyard and Nantucket. He politely declined to share specifics about the wheres and whys of his pot placement.

While Mr.Turner piloted the Sea Raven, sternman Mike Ryan began a routine he’d repeat 120 times in the next seven hours: First he sorted the catch, putting obvious keepers into a basket at his feet, putting the “too close to call” conch in a “to be measured” pile, and tossing back the undersized conch and ubiquitous spider crabs. Then he rebaited each pot with a mesh bag filled with a fragrant mix of mussels and/or frozen herring and/or horseshoe crab, and lugged the 100-plus-pound trap along the length of the gunwale to the stern, where he stacked the pots in a precise order. The stern of the Sea Raven has no back, and it’s no place to be careless, especially for someone wearing heavy rubber boots and full rain gear, which both men do, even on this hot, sunny day. The Sea Raven is a “splashy” boat, in Mr. Turner’s words. Every time the 450-horsepower diesel engine shifted into high gear, ocean water cascaded off the canopy like a tropical downpour.

The harvest from the first string of pots filled a laundry basket. The second string barely filled half of one. For a moment, Mr. Turner looked like a pitcher who’d just given up a home run. Then he shrugged it off, and went back to his notebook. After some calculations, he set a new course, and gave hand signals to Mr. Ryan when it was time to give the newly baited traps the heave-ho off the stern.

Fishing lore

Mr. Turner purchased the Sea Raven 25 years ago, when it was called the Wendy Marie.

“I changed the name to Sea Raven because when I read to my kids when they were little, they loved the Native American fables,” he said. “The raven plays a big role in a lot of those stories; usually he’s the trickster. There’s also a fish called the sea raven. It’s like a pufferfish. Years ago, when lobstermen would catch one, they would rub its belly so it would inflate, and then they’d put it in the water. If it dove straight down, that’s where the lobster were.”

Mr. Turner’s fishing career began a few feet away from where the Sea Raven docks, at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown. “My mom took me fishing for the first time when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “I caught a tautog on a handline, and that was it for me. From then on, all I wanted to do was fish.”

Mr. Turner is a fit 64 years old. With his understated humor and professorial bearing, he doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood vision of a salty sea captain. He’s lived in Edgartown his entire life, “except for when I was born in the hospital in Oak Bluffs,” he said. The only time he lived off-Island was the two years he spent at Boston University, a time he recalled with marked indifference.

Over his 40-year career, Mr. Turner has fished Vineyard waters for everything from quahogs to cod to swordfish. He’s one of the few fishermen on the Island who has harpooned swordfish. “There’s no fight like it,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”

For the past 25 years, his primary quarry has been conch. While most New England fisheries have taken a beating during that time, conch has been the most lucrative fishing done on Martha’s Vineyard.

Conch fishing is also backbreaking work, and it’s apparently taken a toll on Mr. Turner, who often works the kinks out of his shoulders in between pot landings.

Asked about his most memorable moments on the water, Mr. Turner said just weeks ago he saw a large bluefin tuna breach out of the water in Nantucket Sound.

“Last week we saw a seal float by with a huge chunk out of its back,” Mr. Ryan said.

“It had triangular serrations all around it,” Mr. Turner said, indicating the size of a serving dish with his hands. “Doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”

After some cajoling, Mr. Turner recounted two stories that underscored the inherent dangers of making a living on the sea.

“I was fishing alone, and all of a sudden the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” he said. “It’s something I’ve felt maybe twice in my life. I turned around, and there was a 75-foot scallop boat coming right at me. He must have fallen asleep. I was incredibly lucky that I got out of the way. I didn’t even have enough time to throw a conch at him. If I hadn’t turned around when I did, that would have been the end of my fishing career.”

He recalled another solo journey when he was idled by complete engine failure while battling gale-force winds. “I was out there by myself, and the wind was blowing 50 miles an hour, and the engine just died,” he said. “I tried everything I could think of, and I couldn’t get it started. I was not a happy camper.” Mr. Turner said when he called the Coast Guard, protocol prevented them from coming to his aid. “They asked if it was a matter of life and death; I said it wasn’t. They asked if I was taking on water and I wasn’t, so they said they wouldn’t come get me.” Mr. Turner said he eventually noticed that the kill switch, a button that immediately cuts off fuel to the engine, had been inadvertently engaged.

“When I got back, there were three ghost-white fishermen on the dock. It had just taken them four hours to get from Wasque to the harbor,” he said. “It was brutal out there.”

Asked about some of his most unusual by-catch, Mr. Turner said an antique anchor, the occasional tropical fish — most recently a snowy grouper — and a working rod and reel topped the list. “It was a pretty nice reel,” he said.

Conched out

Mr. Turner believes the conch business on Martha’s Vineyard is in decline. “When I started, there were 15 [conch] boats out of Edgartown,” he said. “This year there are three. The fishing isn’t good. There’s no other way to put it.”

When it comes to quantity, the numbers confirm Mr. Turner’s opinion. According to statistics from the Massachusetts department of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), Martha’s Vineyard fishermen harvested 1.5 million pounds of conch in 2011, and in 2014, the total was roughly half that, 795,791 pounds. This year, more than halfway through the season that ends on Dec. 15, the total is again trending downward — 273,254 pounds have been harvested as of August 17. But while the quantity of the overall catch has declined significantly, the value of the Vineyard catch has held somewhat steady. In 2012, 1.1 million pounds of Vineyard conch was valued at $2.7 million. In 2014, 800,000 pounds of conch brought in $2.1 million to the local economy. Part of the reason conch value has held up is that the vast majority is exported to China. But that also makes Mr. Turner wary. “We get a good price now, but with all that’s going on over there, I think we’re in for a significant correction,” he said.

By the time the Sea Raven pulled up to Memorial Wharf, four large polyurethane bags were filled with conch. Since it was also the next-to-last day for commercial sea bass fishing, Mr. Turner had stopped to empty two strings of bass traps, which yielded about 50 fish that were iced down while still flapping. Two men from Aqua World Seafood met the Sea Raven and exchanged bait and ice for the conch and bass.

Of the 120 pots that were pulled, only a handful had been laden with conch. “We had a lot of uncooperative subjects today. On a scale of one to 10, today was a zero, financially,” he said matter-of-factly.

Still, Mr. Turner said he’d be back on the water early the next day.

“You just never know what’s going to happen,” he said.