Study looking at climate impacts to local whelk fishery

So far, lab results dispel urban myth whelk prefer female horseshoe crabs.

Whelk hauled on the gunwale of the whelk boat Payback. —Rich Saltzberg

A research professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Marine Laboratory (CML) is investigating how changing water temperatures off the coast of Massachusetts — and particularly Martha’s Vineyard — impact the offspring of a valuable state fishery.

Elizabeth Fairchild, research associate professor at the marine laboratory, and a scientist with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, will analyze changes to the female eggs of whelk — a large, predatory sea snail also known as conch, according to Fairchild — using specimens collected from the Island.

She began studying the morphology of the egg strings produced by female whelk, and their reproductive potential. “Now we’re also studying if changes in water temperature are impacting the structure and morphology of these eggs, as well as the number of embryos that female whelk are producing,” she said in a recent visit to CML.

From 2011 to 2023, specimens were collected from Lagoon Pond, between Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, and Fairchild is currently compiling five data sets and using information like egg string size and hatch rate to see if changing water temperatures have impacted whelk offspring. 

Fairchild is working in collaboration with Shelley Edmundson, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard’s Fishermen’s Preservation Trust. Edmundson studied and collected the whelk egg strings used in this research as part of her Ph.D. studies in zoology and marine biology at UNH. Other egg strings were collected by Tisbury shellfish constable Danielle Ewart.

“With climate change, it is very uncertain how many marine species will be impacted,” said Edmundson. “Ocean acidification is impacting many marine organisms, especially those with shells.” 

Edmundson hopes this research will help them understand if there are changes in the fishery.

Students at UNH are in the process of dissecting egg strings from 2023, before the team will aggregate all the data and model how or if water temperature has impacted whelk.

The goal is to determine if the coastal waters off Massachusetts are still an ideal environment for the whelk fishery, and what impact, if any, temperature has had on the structure of the egg string and amount of offspring produced.

While Fairchild can’t promise the research will be concluded by the end of this year, all of the data should be documented by then.

In tandem with research on egg strings, Fairchild and Edmundson studied the effectiveness of new sustainability efforts.

Recently, the whelk fisheries have been forced to either shorten their seasons or close due to high international demand, coinciding with a stock reduction in other regional fisheries, such as lobsters.

“The whelk fishery continues to be an important Island fishery,” Edmundson told the Times. 

There are currently 20 whelk fishermen on the Island. Since she started her research, many older fishermen have retired, but a lot of their permits have stayed on-Island with the new generation. Market prices for whelk, however, are lower than they’ve been in decades. “This has created uncertainty, but uncertainty is common in the world of fisheries, with changing regulations, climate, and species behaviors,” she said.

Most whelk is shipped overseas in its shell. But Edmundson thinks, in order to help Island fishermen with current market instability, it might be time to encourage them to keep their catch in local markets. Though it’s not consumed much on the Island, Chef Deon at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Oak Bluffs serves many local whelk dishes, including fritters, chowder, and ceviche, and has a cookbook dedicated to whelk recipes, said Edmundson. Ocean C Star, a local dealer in New Bedford, also processes and freezes whelk meat. 

“I would like to find a way to have it more accessible to the Island community,” said Edmundson. “Bringing back this processed product and providing great recipes could help people get more excited and confident in trying to cook with our local and delicious whelk.”

A 2018 stock assessment report from the Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF) found that the fishery is overfished. Whelk, which are nocturnal and spend a lot of time buried under sediment, are hard to estimate, though, said Edmundson.

“We just don’t know. There are a lot of unknowns, and it is a complicated species to regulate,” she said. She added that there has been a reduction in fishing since that report, and she doesn’t think it’s currently experiencing overfishing. But as a slow-growing species, stock could still be low.

The DMF plans to investigate best management practices for the fishery, and fishermen want to be a part of the solution, Edmundson said. There is currently a whelk research fleet — a collaboration with ​​the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation — to collect whelk size and catch data.

“All stakeholders — fishermen, regulators, and scientists — need to work together in order for this fishery, and really all of our fisheries, to continue,” said Edmundson.

“Fishermen have had to deal with a lot of issues,” Fairchild told the Times.

Fairchild hopes the research will help increase sustainability of the fishery by standardizing traps with escape vents for whelk under the legal limit, and finding a local alternative bait to lure whelk into the traps, rather than the female horseshoe crab; horseshoe crabs are already at risk due to the rarity of their blue blood, used by the biomedical industry.

“We looked at how to make the fishery more sustainable, but still fished as well, and cost-effective,” said Fairchild.

In the past two whelk fishing seasons, which run from April to December, the research team worked with local fishermen to determine the effectiveness of these escape vents and bait recipes, with little to no horseshoe crab.

Though the team still works on the research from the field, in the lab they found that whelks will go after and interact with bait that excludes horseshoe crab as much as one that includes it. They also found that whelk will go after a male crab as much as a female one, which dispelled a myth that they only liked females.

“It helps that you don’t have to kill off the reproductive horseshoe crab for bait,” said Fairchild.

Research from the field about the sustainability efforts will continue this summer, and Fairchild hopes a report will be published in a few months.

“We have some promising bait blends, and plan to increase our sampling efforts this season, thanks to the support of a grant,” said Edmundson. The research is funded by the Edey Foundation, which gives money for conservation and environmental programs on the Island.


  1. Elizabeth, thank you for your important work.
    It’s heartbreaking that the lobsters 🦞 in some areas have died out from hot ocean water.
    The last whaling ship went out of New Bedford in 1927. Our values around fishing are continuing to evolve.

    • Better to have the lobster sitting in a pot with rising water temperature.

      Mary thanks for the recommendation for Secretary Albright book. I just purchased it.

  2. Mary- The lobster die off you keep referring to was due to a multitude of factors , most of which was pesticide dumping.
    The waters aren’t hot and show very little increase and in some years show a decrease in average fall/winter temps. The lobsters can withstand the fluctuations just fine , even a 1°f increase in a year will not cause a “die off” , or a massive migration north.

    Albert – there aren’t any turbines where the whelks live. The only thing that may harm them is where the cables pass through where they do live in Nantucket sound.

    • Have the welks been harmed by the electric cables that have fed Nantucket for decades?
      Would a wind turbine harm a welk were there to be one in it’s habitat?

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