New state regulations intended to rebuild the whelk and horseshoe crab populations in the Long Island Sound could substantially limit the catches of local fisherman.
The proposed regulations would limit whelk fishing to whelks with shells larger than 5.5 inches in length. Justin Davis, assistant director in the Fisheries Division at Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the length minimum came from research from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which showed female whelks in the Sound do not produce eggs until their shells reach this size.
Nancy Balcom, the associate director and extension program leader for the Connecticut Sea Grant at UConn, said that female whelks take a long time to mature — six to 11 years. She said that the regulations would protect the smaller whelk until they reach the age of reproduction.
Davis said that the department had done surveys trawling different areas of the Long Island Sound each year. He said that the department conducts 200 trawls each year over five months — April, May, June, September and October.
Asked about the proposed regulations, Bob Guzzo, a commercial fisherman out of Stonington who catches whelk, said he thought the regulations were unnecessary, and that the department shouldn’t be involved in making them. He said that the whelks come and go in cycles.
Guzzo said he believed the trawl surveys were inaccurate. He said that trawling was not the best way to catch whelk, since the nets often fill with seaweed during the spring, and don’t pry the whelk off the bottom of the Sound. He said that he wanted to see more data.
“I just want better information before they start doing things haphazardly,” he said.
“A good compromise”
Davis said that he had a “respectful disagreement” about the value of the trawl survey. He said that while trawling may not be the best way to capture whelk, the fact remained that the department was capturing 90 percent fewer whelk in its trawls than it had 20 years ago.
Guzzo said that the state should do a survey based on the catches in whelk traps, called “pots.” Davis agreed that this would be useful but said that as a complement to the trawl survey, but said that decreases in funding and staffing in the department made it challenging to take on an additional project.
Both Balcom and Bill Lucey, the Long Island soundkeeper at the non-profit Save the Sound, said that whelks had become a target of the commercial fishing industry after the lobster industry went into decline. In a subsequent email, Lucey told CT Examiner that he believes that climate change was the primary reason for the population decline of lobsters in the Sound.
Lucey said that ideally, the minimum shell size would be even larger — around 6 or 6.5 inches in length, which he said would give the females a chance to produce spawn. He said that regulations like the ones the department was proposing were important in order to make sure that the species populations — and, therefore, the fishing industries — would survive long-term.
“If you have a healthy commercial fishery that’s well managed, that means you have a very productive ecosystem,” he said. “When you have unregulated fisheries like we have with the whelk fisheries, they are inevitably going to be fished down.”
But Lucey, who has a background in commercial fishing, said he also understood the concerns that fishermen had about how regulations affect their businesses. He said that running a boat was expensive — with costs for everything from fuel to maintenance to bait.
“There’s a lot of costs,” he said. “At some point, if there’s too many restrictions on the fishery, it’s not economically viable to go fishing.”
However, Lucey said he felt that Connecticut’s proposed regulations did a good job of balancing the needs of the fishermen, the reality of the current ecosystem and the whelk’s reproductive biology
“I think it’s a good compromise, it’s not as strong as it should be but it does allow some flexibility for the fishing industry,” he said.
“Sheer, subjective guesswork”
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimated that the new regulation would reduce the whelk harvest in Connecticut by between 40 and 60 percent.
Whelk fishing brought in yearly revenues of between $295,000 and just over $1 million in Connecticut between the years 2009 and 2018, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. In 2018, Connecticut fishermen collected 448,000 pounds of whelk, which sold for approximately $2.27 a pound.
Heather Haggerty, owner of Big G Seafood, Inc, a wholesaler of whelk in Massachusetts, said that the demand for whelk is currently high, and the price for live whelk has reached between $4.50 and $5.50 a pound, driven partly by the high price of labor and packing material.
Haggerty, whose family has owned the business for 44 years, said that she understood the need for regulations, but that she felt the current ones were made “willy-nilly” and not backed by solid science. She pointed to the fact that different states all have different ways of measuring the minimum shell size — some measure by length, others by width.
Sherman Butler, the publisher of Southern New England Fishery News, said that whelk is classified as a “data-poor” or “data-limited” species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, meaning that there was no way to know the size of the fishery or set an overfishing limit.
“The science is totally incomplete and the change in the rules largely has to do with someone’s perception that fishermen are overfishing when, in fact, there’s no scientific data that would allow any regulatory agency to make that determination,” he said.
Butler added that whelks also grow to different sizes depending on what bay or marine area they are located in.
“You wouldn’t be out of place to say that their minimum size is based on sheer subjective guesswork,” he said.
Haggerty said that in 2013, the year that Massachusetts began to regulate shell size, the pounds of whelk that her business took in dropped 29 percent. By 2015, it had dropped another 34 percent. In order to keep the business going, she said, she expanded to take in fish like sea bass and fluke at the suggestion of some of the fishermen who supplied her.
Joe Gilbert, owner of Empire Fisheries in Milford, said that he supported the idea of regulation, but he felt that in exchange, there needed to be some protections for the fishermen, such as a limited-access program. This way, he said, when the population of whelk returns, the fishermen don’t have to compete with new entrants flooding the market.
The department is also proposing some limits on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs, in response to a 2019 report from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission showing that the crab population in the Long Island Sound was in decline. According to Lucey, horseshoe crabs are the best bait to use for capturing whelk.
The new regulations would reduce the number of crabs that commercial entities can possess from 500 to 150 per day. They would also ban harvesting during 5-day periods in May and June when the crabs are known to spawn. The department predicts that this would decrease the harvest of crabs by 62 percent.
Guzzo disagreed that horseshoe crabs were in any danger.
“There’s thousands, and they come up on the beach and they lay their eggs, and they lay thousands and thousands of eggs. They are doing fine,” he said.
Jennifer Mattei, a professor of biology at Sacred Heart University and one of the coordinators of Project Limulus, which tracks the horseshoe crab population in the Sound, said that the population has been steadily declining in spite of 2006 regulations limiting the places where horseshoe crabs can be harvested. She said the group was in favor of a ban on harvesting the crabs, or at least prohibiting people from harvesting females.
Lucey pointed out that only about 12 fishermen harvest horseshoe crabs. He said he believed the primary reason behind the population depletion was a combination of climate change and pollution in the Sound. However, he said that limiting harvesting of horseshoe crabs was something that the state could control, and it would help offset the decline.
“Is fishing causing the decline? I would say probably not. Is it a factor? Definitely,” he said.
Mattei also said that, without an outright ban, it would be difficult to know whether people are complying with the regulations.
Gilbert said that he wished there was another bait that could be used for whelk besides horseshoe crab. He said that the federal government should invest in developing an alternative bait using whatever chemical horseshoe crabs produce that attract the whelk.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is also proposing regulations that would require whelk fishers using lobster pots to prop open the top door on the pots, in order to avoid lobsters being accidentally trapped in the pots. Another would make permanent a 2020 emergency regulation compelling recreational striped bass fishers to use only circle hooks, which increase the likelihood that the fish will survive when released back into the water.
The regulations will have to go through the Attorney General’s office and then be approved by the Regulations Review Committee of the General Assembly. Davis said the department’s goal was to have the regulations approved by May 1, 2022.
There will be a public hearing about the regulations on December 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Clinton Town Hall. The public is also welcome to send written comments through the eRegulations system, via mail to Justin Davis, DEEP Marine Fisheries Office, PO Box 719, Old Lyme, CT 06371 or to email@example.com.
The comment period will end at 5 p.m. on December 19.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include comments by Bill Lucey emphasizing the role of climate change on lobster fishing in the Sound.