Codfish Nursery Plan Promoted

Tom Osmers of West Tisbury Leads Effort to Bring Back Cod Through the Use of Saltwater Hatcheries on the Island


Cod, once the most valued fish in Vineyard and New England waters, has been in severe decline for years.

Now, to help the fish recover, a group of Island fishermen are moving ahead with a plan to open and operate a cod nursery on the Vineyard.

Last week, a small group of Vineyarders went to Portsmouth, N.H., to take a tour of a saltwater fish hatchery where cod and other saltwater fish are being spawned and raised.

The trip is but one of many small steps being taken to begin what is being called the Martha's Vineyard Cod Fish Restoration Project.

Tom Osmers, the West Tisbury shellfish constable, has been nicknamed the Codfather of the Vineyard effort to bring cod back to local waters.

He and his colleagues met in April with Island selectmen. He has taken his ideas to Woods Hole fishery scientists. And he has taken trips to the mainland to talk to federal regulators.

His passionate drive is driven by vivid memories of going fishing for cod when they were plentiful in Vineyard waters.

The trip to Portsmouth, which occurred May 24, included examining another option to help Vineyard fishermen. The fishermen went offshore to the Isles of Shoals to see how blue mussels are raised in the open ocean.

Mr. Osmers said Island fishermen no longer can wait on the efforts of government regulators to revive commercial fisheries.

With so many closures to fishermen over the years, Mr. Osmers said, "We have waited 17 years for the government to bring back the cod and it hasn't happened. We can't wait.

"This is our chance," he said. "Before we step off into ocean aquaculture, let us pay attention to our chance to restore our own historical fishery, which has served us so well for all these centuries. If we wait for the government, it won't happen. This has got to happen from the inside out, it is not going to happen by the outside working in."

Mr. Osmers has a vision of Island fishermen raising juvenile cod and harvesting them in Island waters. The Vineyard waters once were filled with cod from fall to spring and Mr. Osmers believes the fish used these waters to spawn and feed.

In the 1800s, Vineyard waters were premier fishing grounds for cod. The hook and line fishery was an economic engine for the Island community. Noman's Land cod was a popular product that was shipped to the mainland.

The historic importance of the cod fishery even can be seen in Island town seals. The town seal for Tisbury carries three codfish. The town seal for Chilmark is a Noman's Land boat, a boat specifically built for the handlining of cod in the waters south of Chilmark.

Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman who formerly ran a wholesale fish buying operation in Tisbury, went on the May 24 trip and said he was deeply moved by the experience. Mr. Doty wants to see the Vineyard move forward in restoring the cod fishery.

Rick Karney, director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, an organization which for more than 30 years has advocated and worked on spawning shellfish and releasing them into the Island's coastal ponds, also went on the trip. Additional participants included Scott Lindell, a scientist at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Emmett Carroll of Chilmark, and Hollis Smith and Brian (Chip) Vanderhoop from Aquinnah.

At Portsmouth, the Vineyarders visited GreatBay Aquaculture, the operator of the saltwater fish hatchery.

"GreatBay Aquaculture is a private company that is raising cod, black sea bass and fluke," Mr. Doty said. "We stayed there for three hours and got a complete tour. The hatchery spawns and takes the cod up to three inches in size and sells them. Almost all of the fish they raise are shipped to other countries, like Canada."

The cod are raised to market size in those countries and then sold. Mr. Doty said the Island fishermen want to do the same.

"These guys fish for wild stocks in the ocean," Mr. Karney said of the Island fishermen. "I think the trip pointed them to thinking of the potential of aquaculture. We can tell them and show pictures of the work of aquaculture but when they actually see the fish live, I think it makes a big impression."

As the plan now stands, Mr. Doty said: "We could buy 10,000 cod at three inches in size in October. We could put them in cages in the open waters, perhaps Menemsha Pond, nurse them from October to April when they are 8 to 9 inches in size. We could tag them and release them into the wild."

But a more complicated regulatory hurdle awaits, since Mr. Osmers said he'd like to get an area of Vineyard waters set aside for the Vineyard's small-boat fishermen.

To get it, he'd have to take the Vineyard restoration plan to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees all the ground fish that swim in the waters of the Vineyard and Georges Bank. Right now the council is under a lot of criticism for closing huge areas to fishing because of the decline in cod.

"We used to have cod from Thanksgiving to Easter," Mr. Osmers said. "We are in the middle, in a central location of a river of cod that used to come up from the south and east of Nantucket Shoals and move up Muskeget Channel and go west and fill all the shores of Martha's Vineyard, all the way to Long Island.

"I am looking at a more passive way to catch fish, a more fish-friendly version, a type of fishing that doesn't alter the environment," he said. "I want a fishery that will allow the juveniles to live and it doesn't destroy the environment that creates fishing grounds."

He sees the closed fishing area as a place for only hook and line Vineyard fishermen. Large gill nets and unattended ghost nets would be prohibited.

The Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association is also pushing for a restoration of the cod fish in the waters off Chatham. Their efforts have resulted in the creation of a specific type of fisheries management that gives an association of anglers a quota that they manage themselves.

Mr. Osmers, however, doesn't like that idea. He wants the Vineyard fishermen to have their own historic fishing grounds and to stock it with juvenile fish.

"I didn't want to go to the table and argue over getting a piece of the ever-shrinking pie," Mr. Osmers said.

So he came up with the idea of raising baby cod as a way to remain a player in the future of Vineyard fishing. Right now, he said, the council's harsh management decisions essentially have closed the door on all Vineyard fishermen having any part in the future of commercial fishing.

"I went to Woods Hole and I walked the halls at the Marine Biological Laboratory. I found people I could talk to and they liked my idea," Mr. Osmers said.

Mr. Osmers also took his idea to Island selectmen, who also liked the concept.

In April, the chairman of the Chilmark selectmen, J.B. Riggs Parker, wrote to the New England Council: "We are lending our support to the development of a Vineyard sector for groundfish quotas and management. Local control and local husbanding of our resource could lead to resource recovery."

Selectmen in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury wrote similar letters urging the council to granting special consideration to Vineyard fishermen.

On May 19, Mr. Osmers showed a movie of Tubby Medeiros and his tub trawling for cod to the members of the Barnacle Club, one of the Island's oldest waterfront organizations. The video was recorded in February of 1991, when there were still plenty of cod in Vineyard waters.

The club gave Mr. Osmers $500 along with a letter, which states: "The Barnacle Club heartily endorses Tom's efforts to establishing a Vineyard cod fish nursery and provided him a healthy donation toward editing the film presented for use in promoting the nursery."

Mr. Lindell, director of the scientific aquaculture program at the Marine Biological Laboratory, calls the Osmers proposal "definitely a step in the right direction. In order for people to maintain employment in the maritime, in the fisheries, we need to look at alternatives."

While all the fisheries regulations in the world won't necessarily help, he said, taking steps to raise juvenile fish is a big step forward.

The trip to New Hampshire was paid for by the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund, a private fund that is also helping the Vineyard effort to raise blue mussels.