In search of whelk

Reporter goes on voyage with fisherman in search of conch.


Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on channel whelk.

The Times accompanied Edgartown whelk fisherman Donnie Benefit for a half-day of trap pulling aboard the Payback on a recent early morning. Mr. Benefit is a second-generation fisherman, whose Maine-built boat looks indistinguishable from a lobsterman’s. Not long after motoring out from the glass calm of Edgartown Harbor, Mr. Benefit stepped into black boots and hitched up a pair of Grundéns overalls, and began feeding line through a winch on the edge of the boat. Soon he had a pot on the gunwale, and began feeding the whelk he plucked out through a chute gauge to check for legal diameter. Whelk that slid through the 2⅞-inch passage went overboard, those that didn’t went into a sack-lined barrel. Before each trap plunged back into the sea, a bag of fresh bait was tied inside. These were the repetitions of the day.

Channel whelk are harvested in open-top wire traps shaped like a lobster pots, but without mesh funnels. Fishermen refer to the traps as conch traps as opposed to whelk traps. As with lobster pots, a roped buoy marks each trap. The traps are baited with horseshoe crab, green crab, or various shellfish, singly or in different combinations. The bait is hung in a nylon mesh bag in the center of the trap. Whelk crawl inside the trap vainly trying for bait they can’t access. Channel whelk researcher Shelley Edmundson told The Times that whelk vision is feeble. They detect bait through smell.

Mr. Benefit said whelk like their bait fresh, unlike lobsters, which savor rottenness. He said this is because they are predators, not scavengers. That said, he told The Times that he’s placed a chunk of ham beside a whelk and watched it gobble it up. Crabs regularly enter whelk traps, drawn by the bait. The Times observed traps crawling with different types of crab that ranged in scale from the diameter of a dime to the size of a softball. Spider crabs are a particular nuisance in the traps. Though not the fiercest pinchers, Mr. Benefit said these crabs repeatedly lance a spot on bait bags with the tips of their claws until they poke a hole through. Notwithstanding what the crab will then pilfer, this provides a portal for little invertebrates called sand fleas. The fleas work the bait like ants and maggots work roadkill. Mr. Benefit said that in areas where they’re concentrated, lobster and whelk bait can disappear overnight. The Times observed several sand fleas wriggling on the gunwale of the Payback after a trap was hoisted aboard. They looked like a cross between a wood louse and a shrimp.

As the Payback trundled to different spots northwest of Cape Poge Light, the whelk emerging from the traps varied in color and shape. In one location all their shells held a purplish hue, in another the tails of the whelk were stubby as opposed to slender tapers. Mr. Benefit noted that variations like these are common across Vineyard Sound.

Mr. Benefit’s traps in Cape Poge Bay scored the biggest catch of the day. He pointed out that the sheltered bay is always warmer than the sea, and whelk like that. But he said the real reason whelk concentrate in the bay is to prey on scallops. He noted that whelk traps in the bay help reduce the damage the whelk inflict on bay scallop stocks. As the Payback passed a distant barge, Mr. Benefit bristled. He identified it as a dive platform for the removal of target munitions, and said that operation, in his opinion, has damaged the scallop beds with a survey sled. He pointed out that parts of the bay continue to be cordoned off during the three-year removal operation. Since fishermen are banned from those areas, he said he believes they are rampant with whelk, and those whelk are likely hammering the scallops. As a scalloper and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Commission, Mr. Benefit said the inability to scallop in the cordoned area has impacted the income of several local fisherman. He said the shell commission may seek reparations from the federal government, the underwriter of the munitions operation.