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Fishing Debate Centers on Catching a Predator

CLINTON – It’s a carnivorous predator that survives on the ocean floor by using its muscular foot and hard pointed shell to pry open the body of its prey and eat the soft tissue inside with its long, nose-like proboscis. 

And whether you call it a conch or a whelk or a winkle, fisherman after fisherman at a Monday night public hearing decried the state’s plan to limit harvesting of the edible oversized snail as another blow to the survival of their industry and livelihood.

“Conch has taken over the lobster grounds and are hindering the lobster coming back,” longtime lobsterman John German testified at a hearing held on Monday in Town Hall. “They’re predators and they should be treated as predators.”

Whelk offered an attractive unregulated target for lobstermen and others after a catastrophic and much-debated lobster die-off in Long Island Sound about 20 years ago that the industry and the lobsters still haven’t recovered from.

East Haven lobsterman and whelk fisherman Peter Consiglio said the state’s proposal to protect the Sound’s whelk population by cutting the harvest by as much as 62 percent is not only based on inaccurate data, but will bring the industry another step closer to extinction. 

“Could anyone take a 62 percent cut and stay in business?” Consiglio asked state fisheries official Justin Davis, who presided over the hearing that drew about 50 people, most with a direct interest in the proposal. 

Turning to the audience, Consiglio said: “We’re tired of being the sacrificial lambs and we’re here tonight to stand up for ourselves, right?” prompting calls of agreement from attendees.

According to state data, about 100 whelk-harvesting licenses are taken out annually, with about half of those license holders reporting that they actually landed the shellfish, which can grow to a size of about two pounds each. 

The latest official harvest data, from 2018, reports that about 450,000 pounds of whelk were taken in Connecticut and sold for slightly more than $2 per pound. Those prices in some cases have reportedly doubled. 

Monday’s hearing also drew testimony and some criticism of other plans by the state to limit the harvest of horseshoe crabs, to change how striped bass can be hooked, and on size restrictions for the taking of lobsters — but it was whelk that attracted by far the most attention. 

Many at the hearing referred to the conical-shelled whelk as conch, but whelk are carnivores who feed on other shellfish including clams and oysters, while conch are herbivores. Both are caught in pots, including empty or repurposed lobster pots, and the state wants fishermen to modify those pots to make it easier for inadvertently-trapped lobsters to escape.

The new regulations – designed to be consistent with proposed rules in New York – also would ban the harvest of whelks with a shell less than 5.5 inches in length and 3 inches in width, approximately the size when the shellfish begin reproduction. 

Rhode Island sets a minimum shell height of 2-¼-inches for harvest, but does not regulate length or width. 

Davis opened the hearing with an explanation of the new regulations, which he said were intended to address overfishing and exploitation of whelk driven by the recent rise in market price, the decline in lobster populations, and restrictions on harvesting sea bass.  

State surveys show the whelk population has shrunk by up to 90 percent in the last two decades, according to Davis – a figure questioned by many who attended the hearing.  

“It’s hogwash,” said Norwalk lobsterman Mike Kalaman. “We lost the lobsters and now the conch has the show. The conchs are all we have left and we fisherman have proven we can manage it ourselves. You’re going to put us out of business. You are. And it just doesn’t make sense.”

Al Schabel, a dealer of whelk and crabs in Northford, said population swings of the shellfish and other species is a natural if not mysterious occurrence that can’t be completely controlled by humans. 

“It’s going to go up and down forever – that’s just the way it is,” he said, adding that he expects this year to produce one of the most robust whelk harvests in 20 years. “It’s not a regulatory thing.” 

If approved by the legislature, state officials intend to implement the regulatory changes next May.

State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, was one of the few speakers at the hearing supportive of the new limits on whelk and horseshoe crab harvests

“We’re not trying to stop anyone’s livelihood,” Gresko said. “I just think it’s important that we don’t overfish something that is in obvious decline.”

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