Concerns about increasing pressure on the conch fishery have prompted state officials to convene a meeting next month to hear from fishermen and others about possible management strategies that might be needed to ensure the continued sustainability of the fishery.
The meeting, hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Aquaculture, will take place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the DEEP Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme.
The conch fishery is now mostly unregulated, with no legal size or catch limits. Licenses are issued by the Bureau of Aquaculture. David Carey, director of the bureau, could not provide the total number of licenses issued for Connecticut waters but said the number has been growing in recent years.
DEEP does not have legal authority to regulate conch or any other shellfish, said David Simpson, director of marine fisheries. Any changes to conch fishery regulations would rely on voluntary compliance.
Conch fishermen "can take as many as they want, as small as they want," he said. "There's almost an insatiable export market for them."
Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant, based at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton, said that fishermen have been raising concerns that the number of conch being harvested is increasing too rapidly to be sustainable, and that the size of the conch being harvested is also increasingly small.
"They don't want them to be fished out," she said Thursday. "The need for flexibility in these fisheries is important, but at the same time, they need to be sustainable."
The Long Island Sound fishery for the large snail, also called whelk, has been growing over the past decade as more lobstermen have shifted to conch since the collapse of the lobster population in 1998, Balcom said.
Balcom said the plan is to explore the possibility of establishing a community managed fishery for conch, in which the fishermen and wholesalers would agree on a system of self-regulation, rather than regulations imposed and enforced by the state.
"Right now, it's a lost species," Balcom said, referring to the lack of regulations.
Pressure on the conch fishery also has grown due to increasing market demand, particularly from ethnic markets in this country and markets in Asia, Simpson, said.
Lobstermen have been able to make a relatively easy transition to conch fishery because similar gear and bait are used, Simpson said.
"It has become the fallback species for a lot of lobstermen, but I have been approached by fishermen who are concerned about the size of the catches getting smaller who want to talk about doing something," he said. "I credit the fishermen for stepping up."