Updated March 7, 10:15 am
With no proposed changes in conch fishing regulations on the agenda, the annual Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) winter public hearing on proposed regulations was a relatively collegial gathering. A baker’s dozen of Island fishermen and stakeholders gathered at the Katharine Cornell Theater on Monday morning to weigh in on the potential changes the DMF is looking to implement in 2018.
The main topic of conversation was changes to regulations for the commercial black sea bass fishery. According to DMF Deputy Director Dan Mackiernan, stocks of the tasty fish have increased sharply in Vineyard waters.
“Black sea bass is poster child for climate change,” he said, referring to the increasing average temperature of Vineyard waters. “We’ve never seen sea bass like we have now. They’re more abundant than they’ve ever been.”
Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and founding president of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, said black sea bass are the fish of the future for Island fishermen.
“The sea bass fishery has become increasingly important here,” he said. “It’s eco-friendly because it’s a pot-and-hand-line fishery. As the water temperature changes, it’s become much more common than it was 20, 30 years ago. It’s a good prospect for the Vineyard fishery.” Doty explained that Vineyard fishermen tend to use smaller boats and need to target higher-priced fish like black sea bass, as opposed to scup, which is not productive at 50 cents a pound.
Fishermen in attendance favored a two-day “soak” — the amount of time pots can be left in the water — to maximize catch, which would switch the current Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday open days to alternate days, e.g. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. The trip limit would remain 300 pounds for pots and 150 pounds for hand line, for each of the three days.
New for 2018 is a proposed spring sea bass commercial season, from April 23 to June 9, with a 50-pound daily limit, and a quota of 75,000 pounds.
Mackiernan said Massachusetts black sea bass stocks are the northern limit of the fish, although some have been trickling north. He said black sea bass harvested in Massachusetts waters tend to be the largest, on average, on the East Coast. “Statistically, we have the biggest fish available,” he said. “The farther they migrate, the larger the fish. We’ve always had bigger fish than our neighbors to the south. Your fish are worth more. Jumbos are worth more than the smaller fish.”
Mackiernan said the quota for black sea bass will go down slightly over the next several years, but he expects quotas to rise in the future.
Massachusetts gets 13 percent of the quota, determined by the 3.52 million pounds allowed along the East Coast, primarily caught from New Jersey to Massachusetts. Quotas and stock assessments are done by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in tandem with the North Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission.
“I’ve been fishing for sea bass for 15 years; there’s a lot more fish around,” fisherman Jason Robinson said. “We need a higher percentage here.”
Attendees expressed no objection to allowing squid trawlers to keep 50 pounds of bycatch during the proposed spring season, citing the Martha’s Vineyard Times article “Squid trawlers leave wake of death south of Martha’s Vineyard,” Mackiernan said the measure would cut down on waste, since current regulations require the bass, which are dead or close to it, to be thrown back. “Fifty pounds is a reasonable number; we don’t want to discard that beautiful fish.”
Allowable bycatch quota is proposed at 75,000 pounds.
The summer commercial black sea bass season will begin on July 9 and end when the quota is reached; this is unchanged from 2017.
Fun fact: All black sea bass are transgender, also known as protogynous hermaphrodites. According to the DMF website, each fish changes sex at some point in its life; most do so before 6 years of age.
Recreational tautog regulations were also on the meeting menu. Mackiernan, also the chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries tautog management board, said a new tautog management plan creates four regions, including one for Rhode Island and Massachusetts. “This makes a lot of sense, because tautog is probably the most localized species that we have,” he said. “It does the least amount of migrating. If you conserve the stocks locally, the benefits will be enjoyed locally. They go a little deeper in the winter, but for the most part, they stay close to where they were born.”
Currently, tautog is not considered overfished in Massachusetts or Rhode Island waters. “However, we were close [in 2017],” Mackiernan said. No new conservation measures are being considered, but there is a move to unify regulations with Rhode Island. In 2017, there was a three-fish daily limit for tautog, year-round. For 2018, DMF is proposing a one-fish limit for June and July, a three-fish limit for April, May, August, and September through Oct. 14, and a five-fish limit from Oct. 15 to the end of the calendar year. A year-round 10-tautog limit for private vessels is also proposed for 2018. “The rate of poaching for this species can be pretty high in terms of black market fish that is shipped to New York,” he said.
The commercial limit for tautog is 40 fish, over 16 inches, starting Sept. 1 until the 64,000-pound quota is reached.
In response to a shellfish constable on the Cape being caught injecting bleach into razor clam and soft-shell clam holes to flush them out, Mackiernan said the state attorney general recommended the DMF adopt an explicit provision to prohibit the practice. No objections were raised.
The DMF is accepting public comment until Thursday, March 8, at 5 pm. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to 251 Causeway St., Suite 400, Boston, MA 02114.
Correction – in a previous version of this article, Jason Robinson was misquoted as favoring Sundays for commercial fishing only.