The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard news

On a blustery November day, in rough water somewhere off the west coast of the island, Captain Otto Osmers windlassed in her first shell of the day. It was a disappointing loot – only a shell was a keeper. He tossed it into the bag. His shell was a mottled orange-pink and the spiral on top of his head was perfect. Once the shell had a few minutes to settle, it began to explore its surroundings, its gelatinous body oozing outward.

“I’m such a strange animal,” said Mr. Osmers. “You’d think that since they’re just a snail, they’d be easier to understand.”

At 22, Mr. Osmers is one of the youngest captains on the island, having saved up his teenage clam-fishing earnings to buy his uncle Tom Osmers, AD Thor’s old boat. When the weather is nice during the active spring and fall shelling season, he could spend all day on the water, hauling up pots of shells, setting up his catches, and stuffing mesh bait bags with chunks of horseshoe crab and herring.

Shell egg cases. — Ray Ewing

For years, the conch’s reputation has been that of a nuisance predator, with a nasty habit of hunting scallops and clams. The fishermen even received a bounty to kill the creatures and destroy their eggs. That all changed in the 1970s, when a lobster downturn caused fishermen to look for new fisheries.

Shortly thereafter, the shell became the most sought-after catch in Vineyard waters, the leader in both average profit and kilo for anglers, according to data from the Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman’s Preservation Trust. At its peak in 2011, 1.4 million pounds of shell were collected in Dukes County, with a monetary value of more than $3 million. In 2020 that figure was £300,000, worth over $1 million.

Recent years have seen a lag, though. For the first time in recent memory, shell prices have not increased in 2022, also due to the particular conditions of the shell market.

Very little of the conch caught in the vineyard is actually sold here. Instead, the vast majority of the catch is sourced from a single company, Ocean C Star, which operates out of New Bedford. Ocean C Star, in turn, exports the catch to China. The reliability of that market, however, has faltered as supply chain issues have made shipping difficult. There is little appetite for conch in New England, so frozen conch is found at the docks.

“I wish it were more domestic,” said Mr. Osmers. “Doesn’t it make more sense to keep what we have?”

Dr. Shelley Edmundson has a PhD in channeled welk. — Ray Ewing

Dr. Shelly Edmundson agrees. Ms. Edmundson has a PhD. she in shell, or channeled whelk as it refers to the species, and she is the executive director of the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust.

“It would be great if people were more curious to taste the whelk here… It would be fun for the fishermen,” he said. “Maybe there could be a big craze.”

Ms Edmundson said she first encountered the channeled whelk at a 2010 meeting of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, a forerunner of the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust. Back then, she said, many shellers were concerned about the now-cancelled Cape Wind Project, planned to be built on Nantucket Sound, a major shellfishing area. The controversy sparked her interest in the species and led her to the Vineyard Vision Fellowship to obtain a Ph.D. in peel research.

“I learned early on that there was very little work done on them,” she said.

“I found it so intriguing,” she continued. “It’s our largest fishery, but there are so many management gaps,” she said. “It’s a bit of a question mark. There are no other snail farms in the state.

In recent decades, however, some of the gaps have begun to close, with major implications for the way conch fishermen operate on the island. In the 1980s, when Mr Osmers’ father Chris practiced conching, there were few restrictions: anglers could bring in any size catch. As knowledge of fishing increased, regulations were imposed. Each fisherman is now limited to 200 traps and can only hold shells with a width greater than three and eight inches. The size limit is expected to increase every two years, but so far fisherman advocacy groups have successfully lobbied for a postponement.

Even with these restrictions, Ms Edmundson said, fishing does not appear to have struck a balance. A 2018 shell stock assessment undertaken by the Department of Marine Fisheries indicated overfishing. This may be due to the sexual dimorphism of the species, with generally larger females being more likely to cross the threshold to be captured and sold.

Back on the AD Thorn, Mr. Osmers hooked a length of bright green rope to the well-worn metal capstan on the side of his boat. Another shell arrived, this one made of wood, the first of five attached to the string. It was much better loot than the first one.

“People always say the wood helps them climb better in the pot,” Mr. Osmers said, explaining the difference.

A few gray gulls, hungrier now that the tourists in Menemsha are out for the season, landed on the back of the boat, eyeing the stinky bait.

While size restrictions have made it more difficult for fishermen to carry that many shells, Osmers said, the larger required sizes have historically increased the price per pound of shell in the market, as larger shells have a better meat-to-shell ratio. The real problem, you said, is total dependence on the export market. However, he admits that the conch is far from his favorite fish.

The shell is mainly exported from the vineyard to Asia. — Ray Ewing

Chef Deon Thomas, who runs Chef Deon’s Kitchen out of VFW in Oak Bluffs, is one of the few establishments that uses the wild catch, as he writes in his cookbook, Conch Cookery. Growing up in Jamaica, Mr. Thomas was well acquainted with the queen conch, a large southern relative of the channeled whelk, whose herbivorous lifestyle gives it a distinct flavor.

“But nonetheless,” Mr. Thomas said in a recent interview with the Gazette, “we look at it as a shell.”

Mr. Thomas believes that improper cooking methods, especially boiling in shell, have soured many would-be shell eaters at the ingredient.

“Boiling it at home is the biggest mistake,” she said. “It toughens up the muscle and if you cook it with the innards, there will be a flavor.”

Instead, she recommends quick freezing the shell, after which you can separate the tenders — great seared in garlic butter — and the tougher parts, which are better for soups or pancakes.

“If you like calamari and you like scallop, you’re going to like whelk,” she said. “It’s for the distinguished palate.”

AD Thor goes on a conching expedition. — Ray Ewing

But for now, the conch market on the island remains quite small. Most of the local energy is focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the species. Ms Edmundson said the Trust was developing a method for fishermen to feed data into their research to get a more complete picture of whelk movements and behaviour. They are also testing alternative shell baits, such as invasive green crabs.

And as shelling season tapers off for the year, Mr. Osmers remains focused on the day-to-day. AD Thorn is in need of repairs and his uncle’s shorter stature means he has yet to re-roof to better suit his new six-foot-tall owner.

While traveling between the traps, Mr. Osmers set up his catch, slipping each slug into the taco’s square aluminum shell that measures the regulation-sized shell.

“It’s hard to make a dollar,” he said, pitying the precarious life of a fisherman.

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