Extension Leads Conversation on Whelk Management Toward Sustainability

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Extension Leads Conversation on Whelk Management Toward Sustainability

(1)Channeled whelk. ©Bob Fisher/VASG

Channeled whelk. ©Bob Fisher/VASG

By Chris Patrick, staff writer

Channeled whelk numbers have tumbled, which is stressing fisheries along the Atlantic seaboard.

“The industry is not sustainable in its current state,” says Bob Fisher, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science fisheries specialist and extension staff affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant. Until now, fisheries managers have used data about one whelk species to regulate all species. Fisher says that if managers take new species-specific data into account, there’s hope that these sea snails with conch-like shells can bounce back.

To help spur this change, Fisher organized a session focused on whelk at the 16th International Conference on Shellfish Restoration, held December 10-13, 2014 in Charleston, SC. The session presented new information—including Fisher’s own research—about channeled whelk to industry, academia, and regulatory agencies.

“Bob’s workshop was much needed and very important for the management of whelk stocks along the eastern seaboard,” says Rich Wong, marine biologist and biometrician at Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, who attended the whelk session. “He was able to track down and assemble of very diverse list of researchers, all of whom shared a similar whelk story of vulnerable biological traits highly susceptible to overfishing.”

Fisher began studying channeled whelk in 2009. Back then, no one knew much about the biology of channeled whelk. When a fisherman asked Fisher what size the species starts to reproduce, the only data he could find was on the knobbed whelk, which is what managers had used to set size limits for channeled whelk.

“Channeled whelk are a very data-poor species and have never had the necessary scientific inputs to inform management or assess the status of the stock in our region,” says whelk fisherman Rick Robins, owner of Bernie’s Conchs, LLC in Cheriton, VA.

Fisher and Robins collaborated to research channeled whelk with the help of a Virginia Fisheries Research Grant, which partners members of the Virginian fishing industry with researchers to protect the state’s fishery resources.

What they found was that channeled whelk reach maturity at different sizes, depending on where they are on the coast. Management practices also vary between states, but each state has allowed fishermen to harvest channeled whelk before they’re large enough to reproduce. In Virginia, for example, whelk reach maturity at six inches. Current landing sizes are set just below at 5.5 inches.

At the December 2014 meeting, Fisher and others presented their data on specific species. Attendees agreed that states need to enforce mandatory reporting and catch monitoring of whelk fisheries.

Fisher says he’s optimistic that change is coming.

“It’s going to happen. It has to happen,” Fisher says. “Everyone recognizes that previous management and current management policies are grossly inadequate.”

In Virginia, immediately jumping from 5.5 to a six-inch minimum landing size would further stress Virginian watermen, whose whelk landings have decreased from a high of 198,000 pounds in 2007 to about 70,000 in 2014, according to landings data by the National Marine Fisheries Service. There simply aren’t enough whelk that are six inches or bigger in the water right now.

“Stepping up the minimum landing size incrementally will keep the fishers fishing while building up the stock,” Fisher says.

Over the next year, Fisher will continue contacting regulators to share his data. He expects to see incremental changes to minimum sizes soon.

Read more about the proceedings and outcomes of the December 2014 meeting here: http://www.vims.edu/research/units/centerspartners/map/comfish/docs_commfish/MRR2015_16_FINAL_02172016.pdf