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State advancing new rules for whelk harvesting; fishermen say slow down

Fisherman John German, on his vessel the Suzanne

Fisherman John German, on his vessel the Suzanne Marie, said if the DEC enacts regulations limiting the harvesting of whelk, they should reduce the proposed size limit from 5.5 inches in length to 5 inches. Credit: Randee Daddona

New York State is advancing a set of rules to limit the annual harvest off Long Island of sea snails known as whelk, but some fishermen say the restrictions aren’t needed.

Whelk, also known as conch, have become a vital species for Long Island fishermen who traditionally harvested lobsters, particularly in the Sound. But the lobster population has sharply dwindled in recent years, and fishing for them is banned for several months of the year.

Conch, which are harvested in traps that use the same hauling gear as lobster pots, are popular in ethnic food markets, including for scungilli and Asian specialty foods.

What to Know

  • DEC is proposing new size limits on commercial whelk harvesting.
  • If the snails are not allowed to grow to maturity the population will die off, regulators say.
  • Some Long Island fishermen, who've turned to whelk to replace the dwindling lobster supply, are pushing back. 

For decades, fishermen were forbidden by state law from returning whelk to the water once caught, because they were considered a predator that feasted on popular shellfish.

But in recent reports, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said whelk are "especially vulnerable to increased fishing pressure due to their life history characteristics of slow maturation and growth rate."

Under the DEC proposal, the minimum size limit for keeping a whelk would be 5.5-inches in length because that is when females reach sexual maturity.

The rule "would be an initial first step toward ensuring that some female whelks have the opportunity to reproduce at least once prior to being harvested," the DEC said in a regulatory impact statement.

The new rules could be in place for the 2022 season, according to DEC.

But during a meeting of DEC’s Marine Resources Advisory Council on Tuesday, John Davi, a fisherman who represents commercial interests on the agency’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, took issue with DEC’s decision to move forward with the rules without a formal public hearing. About 28 people attended the Tuesday meeting.

"I don’t think it’s really fair to put something in place without reaching out to the full community," Davi said. " … It’s going to affect their livelihood."

John German, who fishes for conch and other species from Mt. Sinai Harbor and is president of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen’s Association, urged DEC to delay rollout of the rules until a full, in-person meeting can be held. DEC officials declined, saying the rules have been discussed and aired for years. Written comments can be submitted until June 21.

In an interview, German said he's gathered more than 100 signatures for a petition that urges DEC, if it insists on enacting the rules, to reduce the proposed size limit to five inches, with a 20% allowable margin for undersized conch that would account for shell breakage. Conch shell tips can break during handling, reducing the apparent size.

"Guys from Peconic to the Great South Bay have been telling me if [DEC] passes this we’re out of business," German said, noting that smaller conch are more common in those waters. He took issue with DEC’s claim that whelk populations are down, noting that many fishermen were less active last year.

But one major advocate for the new rules is a veteran conch fisherman who said new regulations are needed to preserve the fishery. "I've been pushing for regulations for 10 years or more," said Peter Wenczel, a Southold fisherman who has harvested whelk since 1978. "You can't have a commerical fishery without regulations."

Wenczel, who said he had not been aware of the Tuesday DEC meeting about the new rules, said unlimited harvest will "destroy" the fishery. "You can't take all the little ones and expect there to be big ones."

John Maniscalco, bureau chief of marine fisheries for DEC, told attendees at the meeting: "The fact remains that whelk are declining in numerous bays where we have … data." He cautioned that "a fishery that persists in taking animals before they mature is doomed to failure."

The new rules would also require that fishermen use bait bags in their whelk traps — putting bait such as quartered horseshoe crabs, skates or sand sharks in mesh bags. The approach could reduce the amount of bait needed, since it would take longer to consume. That’s important because fishermen use horseshoe crabs as whelk bait, thus limiting the number of horseshoe crabs harvested for bait. Horseshoe crab stocks are also considered in decline.

German said many fishermen have tried bait bags and found "when you don’t use a bait bag you catch better."

New gauges will be required for fishermen to measure whelk, tools that could cost about $17.

There are some 230 conch permit holders on Long Island, and those who actively fish use an average of 200 traps each. The new rules would require that they use a specific type of line that would cost an additional $170. Bait bags cost $3.40 each.

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