Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, conch is the most valuable resource landed at the dock on the Vineyard in the summer. It is a huge, unsung fishery that draws little attention. One reason for this is almost no one on Martha’s Vineyard eats conch. Nearly all the conch is shipped to the mainland.
Nevertheless, it is a profitable business, more profitable than the lobster or bay scallop fishery. According to state figures, one million pounds of conch were landed on the Vineyard last year, nearly half of the 2.4 million pounds landed statewide.
The dollar value at the dock on Martha’s Vineyard was $839,466. For the sake of comparison, last year commercial rod and reel Vineyard fishermen landed 14,415 pounds of striped bass and earned $49,706 at the dock. Bay scalloping, the Vineyard’s second most valuable fishery, in 2010 earned $533,409 for fishermen.
Conch, also called channeled whelk, is a mystery animal; little is known about the way it lives, how it reproduces or how much it travels on the bottom.
Shelley Edmundson, a scientist with the University of New Hampshire, is studying the life and biology of the conch for her doctoral degree. Once a week, she joins a local fisherman and goes to sea, to watch the fishery and take notes about what comes up from the bottom. Onboard, she measures and tags the juvenile conch and releases them back into the water. Her project began in January of this year; she started going out on the boats in June.
So far she has tagged nearly 2,000 juvenile conch and learned much about how the fishermen work. Her project is a three-year study.
She first became interested in the topic when she did work for the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association two years ago on the Cape Wind project. “We were looking at fishing effort at Horseshoe Shoal. Tom Osmers [the late West Tisbury shellfish constable] was trying to figure out, trying to describe what was going on at Horseshoe Shoal, because he felt it wasn’t accurately being described for the whole Cape Wind project. In so doing, I started looking at the conch fishery,” she said.
“That was in 2009. That was when I started feeling like, wow — this is a huge fishery. And we don’t know a lot about the biology of the channeled whelk. Tom and I talked a lot about it. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I found there were huge gaps in the biological data. I thought, this is the largest fishery on the Island and we don’t know a lot about the biology of the animal.”
Miss Edmundson holds a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. When she was working for the fishermen’s association here, she met Elizabeth Fairchild, a scientist from the University of New Hampshire who gave at a talk at the Chilmark Public Library about the winter flounder fishery and efforts to restore the stock. The two women spoke and the idea of researching conch for a doctoral degree through the university came up. Ms. Edmundson is also helping Mrs. Fairchild on a winter flounder project on the Vineyard.
A similar project is under way with Brad Stevens, a professor from the University of Maryland. “We are hoping to collaborate to prevent redundancy and to expand experiments and the overall knowledge base,” Ms. Edmundson said. This year she received a $35,000 grant from the Northeast Consortium in Durham, N.H. which pools the support of the University of New Hampshire, MIT, University of Maine and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “The grant pairs fishermen and scientists together,” Ms. Edmundson said. She is also receiving support from the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship.
Like lobstermen, conch fishermen use pots which they drop to the bottom with bait inside. A buoy on the surface, connected to the pot with a line, marks the location.
Conch fishermen leave from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and Menemsha harbors, usually before dawn. Many are back at the dock by 5 p.m. to unload their product, which is shipped off-Island in refrigerated trucks.
There are 20 to 25 conch boats working out of the Vineyard. The state recorded 21 active fishermen on the Vineyard in 2010. The fishery is principally a Nantucket Sound fishery, which includes Vineyard Sound.
“As many as 25 fishermen are making a living and each one of them has a stern man,” Miss Edmundson said. “I say this is the biggest fishery, volume and value, but we don’t have exact numbers,” she said. As part of her study, Miss Edmundson wants better catch data.
The legal size for conch is a shell that is two and three quarter inches wide. Miss Edmundson believes the size limit was set arbitrarily years ago; but it appears to work, as the fishery is considered healthy. Miss Edmundson hopes that with her study, both fishermen and fisheries managers will have a better understanding of how conch live. “Some day the stocks may start to drop and we won’t know why. If we don’t know what is happening to the animal, we won’t know the means for fixing it and keep the fishery going,” she said.
The fishery also is relatively new, about 30 years old. Mostly conch are thought to be aggressive predators of bay scallops and other shellfish. They’ve also been called a predatory sea snail.
“We don’t know much about the channeled whelk. Some studies say the animal is protandric, which means it starts out as a male and then as it ages, changes to female,” Ms. Edmundson said. Scientific data collected in 1970s says when conch mate in August, they move to shallow water to deposit their eggs. That data may be false. “In talking to the fishermen, they say that [moving to shallow water] is bogus,” Miss Edmundson said. “I think it would be interesting to see if that is occurring,” she added.
She has been making her trips aboard four different conch boats; two fish in Nantucket Sound and the other two fish mostly in Vineyard Sound. “The hard part isn’t finding someone to take me out,” she said. “I think the challenge has been meeting all the conch fishermen on the Island. When you come in from a long day of conching, the last thing you want to do is sit and talk to somebody on the dock. You just want to get home and take a shower, eat and go to bed. That is how I feel when I come from being out there,” she said.
While out on the water, she tags each juvenile conch caught, using super glue. The width of the animal is recorded. She also does a quick survey of the number and sizes of conch in every sixth pot hauled; the idea is to start to establish a database for the population and its distribution in the fishing grounds. Once she has a large pile of tagged juvenile conch, she releases them back into the water, recording the latitude and longitude.
Fishermen who find her tagged conch are asked to take note of the size and where the animal was found. She said her research is dedicated to helping fishermen; she continues to receive assistance from the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. The fishermen have nicknamed her the Conch Lady.
There is an incentive for fishermen to share their information. “When the conch guys call in a tagged conch, their name gets put into a lottery for multiple cash prizes,” Ms. Edmundson said.
Looking ahead, she said she would like to get an underwater video of how a conch moves into a conch pot, which is a mystery. Conch are known to be nocturnal, but when and how they move around and feed is largely unknown.
Has she eaten a conch yet? “I want to try it,” she said.