State panel to LI lobstermen: You're whelk-come to conch

Mount Sinai, Thursday July 5th, 2012. John German, Mount Sinai, Thursday July 5th, 2012. John German, president of the Long Island Lobstermen's Assocition, stands near his boat after catching conch instead of lobster on July 5, 2012 in Mount Sinai. Photo Credit: Newsday Jessica Rotkiewicz

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Long Island lobstermen still reeling from a historic closure of Long Island Sound last fall won a victory Wednesday after a state committee declined to put new restrictions on the harvest of a vital alternative species known as whelk.

At a meeting of the Marine Resources Advisory Council in Setauket, board members voted against putting size restrictions on the harvest of whelk, a large snaillike creature also referred to locally as conch. Lobstermen have turned to whelk to make up lost income as the population of lobsters has sharply declined in the waters around Long Island.

Last fall, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, acting on a mandate from federal fisheries regulators, closed the Sound to lobstering from Sept. 8 to Nov. 28, for the first time. The measure is expected to be continued annually until the lobster population rebounds.

John German, president of the Long Island Sound Lobsterman's Association and a longtime lobsterman, argued against the proposed conch rules, saying lobstermen were suffering enough.

"They closed me out of lobstering with a moratorium in the fall that took away 25 to 30 percent of my income," he said. "Now they're trying to ram this [whelk restriction] through here, and there's no data to support it."

Kim McKown, a biologist who directs the crustacean program for the conservation department and who proposed the restriction, argued that a 5 1/2-inch minimum length was needed because whelk under that size do not reach sexual maturity and thus never get the chance to reproduce.

While biological surveys on the size of the whelk population are scarce, McKown and others said whelk clearly are on the decline in Long Island waters, and the measure was needed to stem that reduction.

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Council members voted against the measure, arguing it would have a detrimental effect on the dozen or so boats that still harvest conch and lobsters. The council, which advises the conservation department on marine resources issues, voted to approve a separate measure to require those with a whelk-only license to report their landings.

George Doll, a longtime lobsterman who is also mayor of Northport, argued before the vote that proposed restrictions limiting the allowable whelk catch would have sharply reduced his declining income.

Doll and several other lobstermen noted that four Long Island towns, including Huntington, have laws on the books that make it unlawful to return harvested whelk to the water because the species is considered a predator to lobsters and other more valuable shellfish.

"You're going from a law that says you should kill them to a law that says you should preserve them in two months," said Doll, adding the new size limits would have reduced his whelk harvest by 80 percent. "If I lose 80 percent of my catch, I'm done conching."Also at the meeting and a later public hearing Tuesday, local anglers expressed broad support for a new approach to managing the state's recreational fluke fishery that would create a new region among three or four states with identical, and less restrictive, catch limits. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and possibly Rhode Island would be included.

The move in the short-term could lead to lessened restrictions on the size of keeper fluke, to 18 inches. Current rules limit New Yorkers from taking fish of less than 19 inches. States within the new region would operate under the same restrictions, a welcome change after years of New York anglers having some of the tightest restrictions on the East Coast.

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A vote on the measure at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is expected next month. Advocates of the new approach said they are hopeful it will pass.

"There's no reason why in Long Island Sound we should have two sets of regulations," said Tony DiLernia, New York's representative on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, referring to different limits now in place for New York and Connecticut anglers. "In shared waters, there should be consistent regulations."

Others say the fluke population is rebuilt to a level to sustain the changes. "There's enough fish up and down the coast that every state should have a productive fishery," said Jim Gilmore, who heads the Department of Environmental Conservation's marine bureau.

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