This has not been a good blue crab season on the Vineyard. The Edgartown Great Pond is doing poorly compared with last year and there are lackluster reports from the Island’s other coastal ponds.
But that is the story with blue crabs. Some years the fishing is great and some years it is bad. Feast or famine and nothing much between.
Blue crabs and the state of the fishery, which is largely unregulated, is the subject of a public hearing in Tisbury next month.
The state Division of Marine Fisheries is holding a rare hearing here at the request of Edgartown selectmen and others to discuss possibly limiting the harvest of blue crabs. A petition has been submitted to limit the harvest of commercial and recreational fishermen to 50 crabs per day.
There currently is no landing limit for commercial fishermen. Recreational fishermen are limited to 50 crabs per day and a minimum size of 4 1/8” shell width (from spine to spine). The season is open from May 1 through Dec. 31.
Three public hearings will be held in the state; one takes place at the Tisbury town hall on Thursday, Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m.
Last January Pamela M. Dolby, Edgartown town administrator, acting on behalf of the town selectmen, sent a letter to Paul Diodati, director of the state division of marine fisheries asking that limits be imposed on the commercial harvest of blue crabs.
The letter begins: “Last summer it was brought to our attention that commercial fishermen were harvesting large numbers of blue crabs in Edgartown Great Pond to be used for conch bait. While we have no solid estimates of take, one source indicates that thousands of blue crabs were harvested solely for this purpose.”
It continues: “Therefore we respectfully petition you and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to limit the commercial take of blue crabs to 50 blue crabs [per] day, either statewide or, at the very least, in these salt ponds.”
Countering that point of view, a group of mostly Edgartown commercial fishermen followed with their own petition urging the state to not support the town initiative.
Blue crab fishing is one of the Island’s age-old pastimes. Family fishermen have been going into the Great Ponds for years harvesting blue crabs with little fanfare. They do it with crab nets and simple traps. This columnist had the opportunity years ago to go night crabbing with the late Howard Andrews in Edgartown Great Pond. The fisherman required that the writer be blindfolded in order to go to his favorite spot.
Blue crabs are a wonderful but fragile resource. The best harvests come from state waters farther south — Maryland is considered the blue crab capitol of the nation. Crab processors were once in great abundance while the Chesapeake Bay was a healthy waterway. Blue crab fishing also still takes place all along the southeastern Massachusetts coast. Blue crabs can be found in estuaries from Westport to Chatham and in Harwich. But it is not a commercial fishery; the harvesting of blue crabs is primarily recreational.
The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group has had a productive summer producing baby shellfish for the Island towns. The seasonal operation began in April with the spawning of quahaugs. The crew at the hatchery on the Tisbury side of Lagoon Pond continued into the summer, raising bay scallops and oysters.
“We have raised over five million quahaugs, which is about average,” said Rick Karney, director of the hatchery. The quahaugs were delivered to shellfish constables in late July. The hatchery raised close to 10 million bay scallops. “We’ve done very well this summer. The water quality, the relationship between sunlight and rainfall worked out really well for us,” Mr. Karney said.
They also spawned five million oysters and have split the babies between Tisbury Great Pond and Edgartown Great Pond.
This is a big summer for restoration of the wild oyster fisheries in the two Great Ponds. In the past nearly all of the oysters raised at the hatchery went into Tisbury Great Pond for the benefit of both Chilmark and West Tisbury shellfishermen.
This summer, the shellfish group received a $30,000 anonymous grant through the Jewish Communal Fund to underwrite a wild oyster fishery restoration project in Edgartown Great Pond.
Mr. Karney said the Edgartown project involved establishing a remote nursery on the shore of the great pond, similar in many ways to what has been done for years in West Tisbury.
The significant difference is that the oysters raised there are resistent to dermo, a shellfish disease that has affected the oyster fishery in that pond.
Mr. Karney credited help from Paul Bagnall of the Edgartown shellfish department. Using funds from the town he hired William (Boo) Bassett to take care of the oysters. Assistance also came from interns with the Great Pond Foundation.
“We put out about 40 cubic yards of shell culch,” Mr. Karney said. An additional 200,000 oysters were raised to the three millimeter size.
Shellfish restoration takes a long time and requires the help of Mother Nature, including favorable weather. The result of this summer’s efforts probably won’t be seen for awhile. Oysters spawned this summer will not begin reproducing a natural set for two years.
The work is not just about restoring the fishery for future commercial and recreational fishermen, Mr. Karney said, but is also about restoring the health of the oysters in the two ponds. Both ponds suffered significant losses due to dermo.
Striped Bass Talk
Dick Russell, author of Striper Wars: American Fish Story, will give a talk next Wednesday at the Chilmark Public Library. Mr. Russell’s talk is part of a series underwritten by the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund and the Friends of the Chilmark Public Library.
The talk starts at 5:30 and admission is free.
Mr. Russell has written about a difficult time in the history of fisheries management, the 1980s, when the striped bass was considered seriously troubled. Mr. Russell’s book is about his own mission and efforts in the restoration. And while he toots his horn a little too much about saving the fishery, the book does chronicle a dramatic change in attitudes about ocean resources and the health of one saltwater fishery.
The striped bass story is still not over.