Increased regulation of striped bass and conch fishing saw support from Island fishermen during a public hearing Tuesday with the state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).
And while the fishermen shared the state’s concern for sustaining the fisheries which have seen a decline in recent years, they had suggestions for changes that would protect the fish while maintaining their businesses.
“We know these fish; we have lived with them, learned them, studied them to the point of total exhaustion,” said Lev Wlodyka, a commercial striped bass fisherman from Chilmark.
“The fish come first; they were there before the fishermen decided to catch them,” said Bryan Abrahamson, a commercial conch fisherman from Edgartown.
The hearing was held at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.
Planned changes include a wide range of efforts aimed at curbing overfishing. For striped bass the DMF is considering a longer commercial fishing season, a reduction in fishing days as well as the bag limit, and a point-of-sale tagging system for bass sold in fish markets. For conch the DMF is considering an increase in minimum size and stricter licensing rules for fishermen.
“These proposals are designed to improve the way the fishery operates,” said Paul Diodati, director of the DMF.
If adopted, the changes will take effect in the 2014 season.
Mr. Diodati said the draft recommendations are intentionally conservative to spur comment and discussion.
Some of the regulations are designed to crack down on practices that are unlawful or contribute to the decline of the fishery.
The DMF is considering a reduction in the number of days for commercial fishing from four to as few as two days per week, and reducing the daily bag limit from 30 to as low as 10 fish. Rod and reel permit holders could catch no more than two fish per day.
A proposed tagging system for fish markets would bring Massachusetts better in line with other states, DMF leaders said.
Currently seven states participate in the commercial striped bass fishery. Five tag striped bass at the point of harvest, while two employ a point-of-sale tagging system, which shifts the responsibility to the primary buyer.
Tagging is not currently required in the commonwealth.
Tagging requirements may further discourage restaurants from sneaking striped bass catch through the back door, said DMF deputy director Dan McKiernan.
Mr. Diodati said a point-of-sale tagging system would cause less disruption to the fishery than a point-of-harvest system.
Anglers and dealers spoke resoundingly in favor of extending the commercial season for striped bass to include June.
Fishermen said extending the season would increase their yields and reduce congestion in Chatham, where large numbers of stripers are known to congregate, attracting a fleet of commercial boats every July.
Alex Friedman, a charter fisherman, said opening the market earlier would benefit both the Vineyard and Chatham.
Alec Gale, a fish buyer, said the market was hungry for striped bass. His company paid an average of $3.25 a pound to fishermen last season, he said.
“We can sell the fish if we are allowed to catch them,” Mr. Friedman said.
Proposed changes could also involve setting a control date for the striped bass fishery, which could later be used to bar entry to less experienced fishermen.
Lucas Emin, a young fisherman who has already secured a permit for the 2014 season, said he was in favor of ensuring a way for fishermen to continue to enter the fishery.
If March 2008 is chosen as an entry date (because it coincides with the control date of other fisheries) and permits acquired after that date are considered invalid, Mr. Emin said it would not “give us much of a chance to establish ourselves.”
Mr. Abrahamson agreed that all should have access to the striped bass fishery, and he expressed concern for the sustainability of the species.
“Are we here for the benefit of the fish or the benefit of the fishery?” he said.
Mr. Friedman also asked DMF leaders to consider the increased costs of fishing. He said fuel is four times more expensive than it used to be.
“It’s difficult enough to make any kind of profit,” he said. “The economic realities are vastly different than they were when the permit process was put in place.”
Massachusetts has the lowest commercial fishing fees in the country, Mr. Diodati said.
Of the 4,000 permits granted in Massachusetts, about 200 are in active use, officials said.
Many who attended the hearing objected to the reduction of bag limits. The plan under consideration would drop the limit from 30 to 10 fish per day for commercial boat permit holders. Rod and reel permit holders could catch no more than two fish per day.
Mr. Wlodyka said the bag limit changes would punish those with long ties to the fishery. He recommended that the limit stay at 30 fish per day.
“I don’t think it’s worth going out in your boat for any less,” he said.
The proposed regulations also would penalize charter boat captains whose patrons violate recreational fishing rules by selling their catch.
Mr. Friedman said he’d prefer to find another way to fix the problem, one that would not put the charter boat fishermen’s livelihood at stake.
“I’d be open to searching for other solutions that don’t put the onus on the owner-operator,” he said.
The changes would also prohibit charter fishermen from selling their striped bass catch.
Changes under consideration for the conch fishery include a rule restricting fishermen from leasing their permits to other fishermen. The state is also considering a reduction to the trip limit, which could drop to as low as 500 trips per season.
Enforcement of fishery regulations is performed by environmental police, who drew criticism from the fishermen. They said police repeatedly declined to set foot on their boats and often did not come close enough to inspect their fish or tags.
“Even when the guys come and look, they don’t want to see,” said Sam Hopkins, a conch fisherman.
In the end, the fishermen thanked state officials for coming to the Island to hear their comments.
Mr. Diodati said he would take note of the comments voiced in this and other hearings and use them to shape his final recommendations to the nine-member fisheries advisory commission.
Matthew Mayhew, a fisherman, advised them not to change too much at once.
“By changing too many variables, you are not going to figure out what helped and what didn’t,” he said.
The public comment period closes on Feb. 21. The advisory commission will vote on the changes in early March.
Public comment can be sent to the state, to the attention of Jared Silva, 251 Causeway Street, Suite 400, Boston, MA 02114 or by email.