Recently I attended the Division of Marine Fisheries public hearing held in Vineyard Haven on Feb. 18. I was anticipating that they (the DMF) had recognized and acknowledged that there are some serious issues that need to be addressed in both the whelk and the striped bass fisheries. But, to my disappointment, that was not the case. Once again, the DMF chose to overlook the obvious signs that the conch fishery is in serious decline by emphasizing the importance of a few insignificant amendments to the regulations that are designed to make their administrative duties and enforcement of the regulations easier.
Several of the conch fishermen spoke about how the huge increase in the number of traps being fished in the same small areas is decimating the conch population. This increase was predictable. As the market for whelk has grown, demand has increased, resulting in higher prices and attracting more effort to the fisher. When lobster fishing in Buzzard’s Bay collapsed, the lobstermen who had conch permits switched over to conching and came down into Nantucket Sound to fish. Old, inactive permits with part-time landing histories were allowed to be transferred to new participants who now fish the full 200 trap limit or more. It is well known that the territoriality of the whelk makes them extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. If the same amount of fishing effort is allowed to continue, the channelled whelk fishery will no longer be sustainable and will inevitably collapse.
So while the conch fishermen in attendance wanted to know what could be done to curtail this overfishing and sustain the fishery, the DMF proposed to amend some of the existing regulations to improve compliance with DMF regulations and to make fish pot permit transfers more efficient. I commented that whether or not a person needs one year or five years fishing experience to be eligible to receive a transferable limited entry permit endorsement makes no difference since it has no effect on reducing effort. It would just make it harder for the young guys who want to be fishermen to get started in the business. Requiring all regulated fish pot endorsements to be owner-operator will not reduce effort if “on paper” part-owners fish the permit. None of the other four proposals pertaining to fish pot permits will in any way reduce effort in the conch fisher.
It is my belief that the main purpose or objective of fisheries management should be the sustainability and the conservation of the fisheries. If the fishery can survive, the fishermen will also survive. Without a fishery, there would be no fishermen. I also believe that when a fishery is known to be in decline, the legitimate participants in that fishery should be willing to accept whatever regulatory changes or measurers that are necessary to sustain their fishery.
I would like to clarify, if I may, what I was misquoted as having said at the hearing. I never said, “The fish come first; they were there before the fishermen decided to catch them.” Nor did I ask, “Are we here for the benefit of the fish, or the benefit of the fishery?” That is redundant. After listening to a number of the commercial striped bass fishermen pleading for the 30-fish daily limit and a control date to exclude most others from their fishery, I had to ask: “Are we here to protect the fish (meaning the fishery) or are we here to protect the fishermen?” The striped bass fishermen appeared to be more worried about their bottom line than the preservation of the striped bass fishery.
I have had the striped bass endorsement on my commercial permit since it began in the 1990s and I have been a full-time commercial fisherman since 1991, deriving 100 per cent of my annual income from commercial fishing. For me to be excluded from the commercial striped bass fishery for not having sold any bass is wrong. I have always kept the bass permit as an option, to have in case the conch fishing didn’t produce enough income. Conching was slow in August 1993 but there was a good price for scup. I made enough money on scup that fall to buy a lot in Edgartown and built my house in 1994. A commercial fisherman needs to have the capability to adapt to changing fisheries and conditions and shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to earn a living from more than one fishery.
Capt. Bryan Abrahamson