Buzzards Bay Whelk Study Underway

Scientist to whelk fishermen: "Please throw back the marked ones ... for now."

A former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth marine scientist is calling on whelk fishermen to help with his tagging study ... by throwing back the tagged animals.   

Working with local lobsterman Jarret Drake, Professor Bradley Stevens and graduate student Bhae-Jin Peemoeller landed, marked and released 4000 whelk in Buzzards Bay in August.  But they don't want them back just yet.   

"We're asking fishermen to release any whelks they trap this season that are marked with numbers between 1 and 4000; we'd rather not see them again until next year or the year after," said Stevens.  "That way, we can collect meaningful growth data."   

Last year, as a Professor at the UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, Dr. Stevens was awarded $220,000 in Saltonstall-Kennedy funding for a two-year study to improve the conservation of the New England channeled whelk, a large, edible sea snail, locally known as a "conch."  Now at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Stevens returned to SMAST in August to collect specimens and launch his study in New England waters.  Interim Dean John Farrington provided space and seawater holding tanks, Mr. Drake provided the boat, and the work was underway.  In addition to marking whelks, the researchers also dissected more than 220 whelks to determine the size at maturity and sex structure of the population. 

"This is an opportunity to study a fishery before it is significantly depleted," said Stevens.  "There are currently 166 conch-pot permits in Massachusetts, but only about 40 of those are actively fished.  If the remainder were to be fully utilized, landings could increase significantly, which could seriously deplete the whelk population.  We need to anticipate the effects of such an expansion." 

At about $3 million in landings per year in Massachusetts (2007 estimates), the whelk fishery is small compared to fisheries such as lobster and scallops, and it operates with few regulations and virtually no biological information, so the population's degree of vulnerability is a question mark. However, what little is known about their life history--and what is inferred based on studies of related species--does not suggest a population that could bounce back readily from overexploitation. 

Stevens noted that the whelk fishery has been moving northward for decades.  Directed fisheries for whelks developed in the 1970s in the Carolinas, the 1980s in Virginia, and the late 1990s in New England.   
The Massachusetts whelk fishery was a small bycatch fishery until about a decade ago, just as lobster populations were showing the most dramatic drop.  Lobster fishermen have long found whelks in their pots, but as the lobster catch declined, the lobstermen began to target the whelks as an income source. 

"Wherever such fisheries have sprung up, they started as bycatch fisheries, expanded rapidly as fishermen sought alternative income after sudden declines in other fisheries such as shrimp and lobster, and then just as rapidly began to decline within a few years," Stevens said. 

Working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, Stevens and Peemoeller will investigate life history, growth rates, age distributions, and size/age of sexual maturity in channeled whelks.  The information will be provided to managers to improve the conservation of whelks in a sustainable manner.  "We hope to return next year, mark a similar number of whelks, and start recovering some of those we released this year," Stevens said. 

The Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program is a competitive program administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, to provide financial assistance for research and development projects to benefit the U.S. fishing industry. 
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