- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

HYANNIS, Mass. (AP) - By Aug. 1, Chatham fisherman Jamie Eldredge has pulled the 200 conch pots he has in Nantucket Sound.

He has made the summer switch to fishing for dogfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

In doing so, Eldredge has avoided what has become a major headache for conch fishermen - large leatherback turtles that get tangled up in conch and lobster lines while pursuing jellyfish. In Nantucket Sound, a significant number of those turtles die, three times more than anywhere else in Massachusetts, and state fishery scientists are worried they may be targeted by a lawsuit charging they are not doing enough to protect an endangered species. In a series of public hearings held in coastal and island communities this month, they asked conch fishermen for input on how to deal with the problem.

State Division of Marine Fisheries officials think they know the answer: pull all conch pots in August.

“There’s something about that overlap of animals at that time of year, and what’s happening in the fishery, that’s very deadly for them (leatherbacks),” said Erin Burke, a Division of Marine Fisheries aquatic biologist specializing in endangered species.

State data shows the highest number of fatal entanglements by far occur with conch pots in Nantucket Sound. It’s possible fishermen who leave pots in the sound during August, don’t check their pots nearly as often as they do other times of the year. Landings are down as the conch are spawning and don’t get around as much to climb into a pot. Fishermen are busy with other fisheries like lobster or sea bass.

It’s just enough additional time for the sea turtles to tire and drown.

“We think by having this (August) closure we would really get at these entanglements,” Burke said.

Leatherbacks are long-distance migrants. They can weigh up to a ton, dive to nearly 4,000 feet and are around the Cape in summer to feed on jellyfish. An endangered species, they are believed to be at less than one percent of their historic population size. Threats include human activity on nesting beaches, poaching of eggs, a Caribbean fishery, swallowing marine debris, being hit by boats and becoming entangled in fishing lines.

They hunt jellyfish close to the surface where the line from the pot attaches to the buoy.

“Their really bulky shoulders make a great hook,” Burke said. “They run into the gear and it wedges between neck and shoulder.”

A couple of rolls and they’ve wrapped that line around their upper body so it’s impossible for them to get away. Suddenly their free-flowing flight through the ocean is checked by a ball and chain that will eventually drown them if they are not found and disentangled.

Like other conch fishermen, Eldredge has been trained in how to set these behemoths free. When he’s fishing during the busy fall and spring months, he’s checking pots every day, and can get to a stricken animal quickly.

“Depends on how long it’s been as to how lively it is,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been pushing the state to submit a plan on how they will address entanglements and, especially, fatalities. When right whale entanglement protections lagged in the 1990’s, a lawsuit by Richard Max Strahan forced major, costly changes on the fishing industry. State officials fear they may see that kind of solution if they don’t develop a plan to address leatherback turtle entanglements.

“It’s easy to see that a plaintiff could file a suit,” Division of Marine Fisheries Deputy Director Dan McKiernan told fishermen at a public hearing in Buzzards Bay last week, where most were not in favor of a closure.

“The fishery slows down, but I don’t slow down,” said Harwich fisherman Thomas Luce, referring to McKiernan’s statement that data shows fishing effort on conch dropped two-thirds in August.

Nantucket Fish Company owner Andy Baler worried that, without the protection of pots and lines, fish trawlers and scallopers could drag along bottom areas with spawning conchs. He also said the impact on those who fished conch through summer shouldn’t be discounted.

“The one-third that is fishing is making money,” he said.

McKiernan told fishermen that if they don’t favor a closure, they need to come up with a way to reduce mortality on leatherbacks.

Other possible remedies include reducing the number of vertical lines in Nantucket Sound by requiring conch traps be linked to one another on the bottom. Marion conch fisherman Jarrett Drake has 10 pots linked with only one line to a buoy on the surface marking their location, instead of 10 individual buoys.

“It wouldn’t be the worst thing,” he said, although the pots are heavy for a solo fisherman.

Pulling them for a month, then putting them back in is a lot of work at a time of year when many fishermen are busy with other fisheries and not taking any days off.

The final public hearing on Nantucket was postponed due to Monday’s weather. Once public comment has been analyzed, the issue will go before the state Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, then back to Division of Marine Fisheries Director David Pierce for final action.

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Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com

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