Division of Marine Fisheries gets an earful from conch fishermen

Local fishermen say proposed measures to protect the breeding population will drive them out of business.

DMF deputy director Dan McKiernan (left) and director David Pierce.

Officials from the Division of Marine Fisheries on their annual rounds to inform fishermen of proposed regulations for 2017 held a public hearing at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Tisbury on Wednesday morning.

A lengthy agenda cast a wide net on changes in proposed limits to finfish and shellfish, but the most spirited debate by far was over a proposed increase to the minimum size of channel whelk and knob whelk, often referred to as “conch,” for this year.

DMF director David Pierce and deputy director Dan McKiernan moderated the discussion.

Local fishermen portended dire economic circumstances if the current minimum size, measured at the shell’s widest point, is increased from 3 inches to 3 3⁄16 inches. DMF officials countered that without the increase, the future of the conch fishery, the most valuable fishery on Martha’s Vineyard, will be in serious jeopardy in a matter of years.

The DMF data state that there are zero percent sexually mature females harvested at the current minimum size of 3 inches, and consequently, the animal is not given a chance to breed and replace the stocks fishermen are taking. DMF studies done in 2010 and 2015 concluded that conch need to be 3⅞ inches to reach the 50 percent maturity benchmark. The DMF is proposing to increase the minimum size by ⅛ inch every two years after the proposed 2017 increase, until reaching the 3⅞ target size in 2029.

“We think the whelk is on a trajectory for disaster,” Mr. McKiernan said. “We need to achieve a minimum size where at least 50 percent of the [harvested] whelks are sexually mature. I think the general consensus is that the size distribution is dropping, and we are concerned about the long-term health of the stock. We know with the decline of lobstering in the ’90s, this fishery has become more and more economically important to you guys, but we really want to get to point where we think this is sustainable.”

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty expressed concern over the damage the increase could do to the commercial fishing fleet based in Menemsha.

“The key right now to keeping that working waterfront going is the conch catch,” he said. “In Chilmark, we’re forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars from a summer marina by keeping a working waterfront open to commercial fishermen. A 3⁄16 inch increase for the coming season is a very significant increase. We urge you to go slow.”

“If we lose 25 to 30 percent of our take, and then we lose the premium price that we’re getting now, you’re guaranteeing the death of this fishery,” Edgartown conch fisherman Tom Turner said. “That would happen within two years of a size increase of 3⁄16. A 3⁄16 increase will put me out of business.”

Mr. Turner challenged the DMF data that stated that the whelk population “is presumed to be at low abundance.”

“I’ve been in this industry for a couple of decades, and conch numbers in Vineyard and Nantucket Sound are at an all-time high,” he said. “DMF needs to take advantage of the numerous offers to come out on our boats and see what’s happening on the water. I do not know of any Vineyard fisherman who has had anyone from DMF on their boat.”

“There’s a lot more big conch out there than you guys think,” conch fisherman Alec Gale said. “Your research is coming from a boat out of Hyannis that goes out three times a year … I called you guys many times to come out on my boat. You should be out there on the boat looking at what’s going on. These guys have been fishing for 30 years, and they’re telling you it’s fine out there.”

Mr. McKiernan also explained a proposed change in measuring conch. Currently, the shell has to have a “parallel orientation” when measured by the state-supplied scale. Since the conch shell is asymmetrical, “parallel orientation” has been a source of contention that has led to bad blood between fishermen and Environmental Police, and has also led to courtroom battles. DMF is proposing a change to “any orientation,” so the definition of “parallel” is taken out of the equation.

“If you’re a lobsterman and the officer comes aboard your boat and puts your gauge to the carapace, everybody will get the same measurement. [Conch fishermen] aren’t getting the same measurements by attempting to use the gauge in a parallel fashion,” Mr. McKiernan said.

The change in orientation will also effectively increase the minimum size to 3 3⁄16.

DMF also proposed a conch fishing moratorium between July 26 and Sept. 6, during which time all gear would be removed from the water. The intention of the proposal is to reduce the take during late-summer spawning and to reduce sea turtle entanglements, which peak during that time.

Fishermen expressed concern that draggers would churn up the bottom if they knew their pots would not interfere.

By-catch considered

Prior to the start of the public hearing, DMF director David Pierce said that while on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard last year, he picked up a copy of The MV Times and read the Sept. 7 story, “Squid trawlers leave a wake of death south of Martha’s Vineyard” that described the miles of dead by-catch — mostly squid and scup — left behind by squid trawlers operating just outside the three-mile state limit south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Pierce said that DMF was aware of the issues raised in the story.

“It’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I took it very seriously.”

He said in October, Nantucket selectmen had submitted a “mobile gear petition” that requested several measures to reduce the damage done to fish stocks by squid trawlers. The petition claimed the trawlers were depleting squid and finfish stocks, disrupting the squid spawning cycle, and impacting recreational fishing. The petition requested a regulatory closure of waters surrounding Nantucket to squid trawlers between May 1 and Oct. 3, asked for a minimum 1⅞ inch mesh size for squid trawl nets in all state waters, and a prohibition of net strengtheners, which allow for bigger hauls while reducing mesh size.

“I asked my staff to put their heads together to look at the data relevant to the issues made by the petitioners,” Mr. Pierce said. “After the analysis, the staff found that some of these claims are not supported by available science. Also, the remedies proposed by Nantucket would not have adequately addressed those concerns.”

Mr. Pierce said the DMF doesn’t control the waters outside the 3-mile state limit, where most of the squid trawling is done.

“After getting the analysis from my staff, I decided I could not support Nantucket’s request,” he said. “I’m not going to recommend this for the public hearing, but this is such a controversial issue and it’s gathered so much attention that I thought it should be brought up so we can get the opinions of people on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.”

The DMF public comment period ends on Feb. 17. Comments can be sent to director David Piece at marine.fish@state.ma.us. A copy of the draft regulations can be found on the DMF website.