Massachusetts fisherman once considered the New England whelk or “conch” as nothing more than bycatch. Although demand existed for the large-shelled snail, traditionally used for cooking in East Asian cultures, it could more easily be trawled in the waters around South America, the Caribbean and Asia, making conch unprofitable in the Northeast.
This turned around in the 1980s, however, when overfishing of whelk quickly transformed the small New England conch fishery into a multi-million dollar industry.
To maintain local conch populations, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries issued regulations in 1992 on how much whelk could be harvested. These included limiting the number of conch licenses issued, creating a closed season for conch, and setting a minimum legal size limit for catch.
Since 1988, two MBL visiting investigators have observed how the whelk-fishing policies have played out. Ilene Kaplan and Barbara Boyer, both professors at Union College in Schenectady, New York, are continuing their research this summer by interviewing fishermen, government regulators, and seafood dealers to understand how marine policies develop over time.
“This allows for a snapshot view of the relationship between fishermen and government staff and the development and implementation of marine regulations of a commercial fishery that has both economic and scientific significance,” Kaplan says.
Their results so far have identified both strengths and weaknesses in the current whelk-fishing regulations. They hope to use their fieldwork to influence larger marine policy decisions in the future.
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