On a blustery November day, in choppy waters somewhere off the west coast of the island, Captain Otto Osmers pulled in his first mussel pot of the day. It was a disappointing catch: only a shell was a keeper. He threw it in his pocket. Its carapace was mottled orange-pink and the spiral at the top of its head was perfect. After a few minutes to settle down, the clam began to explore the surroundings, its gelatinous body oozing outward.
“You are such a strange animal,” said Mr. Osmers. “You’d think that since they’re just a snail, they’d be easier to decipher.”
At 22, Mr Osmers is one of the youngest captains on the island, having saved his early shellfish earnings to buy his uncle Tom Osmers’ old boat, the AD Thor. If the weather is good during the active mussel season in spring and fall, he may spend all day on the water pulling up mussel pots, sorting the catch and refilling the net bait bags with pieces of horseshoe crab and herring.
Conch Egg Cases. — Ray Ewing
For years, the clam’s reputation was that of a nuisance predator with an unpleasant habit of preying on scallops and mussels. Fishermen were even given a bounty for killing the creatures and destroying their eggs. That changed in the 1970s when a decline in lobster catches prompted fishermen to seek new fisheries.
Soon after, conch became the most coveted catch in Vineyard waters, the average leading catch in terms of profit and pounds for fishermen, according to data from the Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman’s Preservation Trust. At its peak in 2011, Dukes County harvested 1.4 million pounds of clams with a monetary value of over $3 million. In 2020, that revenue was £300,000 valued at over $1 million.
However, in recent years there has been a delay. For the first time in recent memory, mussel prices have not increased in 2022, partly due to the unique conditions of the mussel market.
Very few of the mussels caught on the vineyard are actually sold here. Instead, the vast majority of the catch is purchased by a single company, Ocean C Star, which operates out of New Bedford. Ocean C Star in turn exports the catch to China. However, the reliability of this market has faltered as supply chain issues have made shipping difficult. There’s little appetite for clams in New England, and so the frozen clam sits in port.
“I would like it to be 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 holds a Ph.D. in mussels, or whelks as it refers to the species, and is Executive Director of the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust.
“It would be great if people were more curious about trying whelks here… It would be fun for the fishermen,” she said. “Maybe there could be a big buzz.”
Ms Edmundson said she first encountered channel whelks in 2010 at a meeting of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, a forerunner of the Fishermen’s Preservation Trust. Back then, she said, many conchers were concerned about the now-canceled Cape Wind Project to be built in Nantucket Sound, a major conch fishery. The controversy piqued her interest in the species and led to her Vineyard Vision Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in whelk research.
“I soon learned that very little work was done on them,” she said.
“I found it so fascinating,” 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 is no other snail fishery in the state.”
In recent decades, however, some of the gaps have begun to be filled – with a significant impact on the way shellfish fishers operate on the island. In the 1980s, when Mr Osmers’ father, Chris, was conching, there were few restrictions: fishermen could bring in any size catch. As knowledge of fishing increased, regulations were enacted. Each fisherman is now limited to 200 traps and can only hold shells larger than 3.8 inches wide. The size limit is set to increase every two years, but so far fishermen’s advocacy groups have successfully lobbied for a delay.
Even with these restrictions, Ms Edmundson said, the fishery does not appear to have reached equilibrium. A 2018 assessment of mussel stocks conducted by the Department of Marine Fisheries indicated overfishing. This could be due to the species’ sexual dimorphism, with larger females generally being more likely to pass through the bar to be caught and sold.
Back on the AD Thorn, Mr Osmers hooked a length of bright green rope to the worn metal winch on the side of his boat. Up came another clam pot, this time wooden, the first of five attached to the rope. It was a much better catch than the first.
“People always say that the wood helps them climb into the pot better,” Mr. Osmers explains the difference.
A couple of gray gulls, now hungrier after the tourists left Menemsha for the season, landed at the back of the boat eyeing the stinky bait.
While size restrictions have made it difficult for fishermen to bring in so many mussels, Mr Osmers said the larger sizes required have historically increased the mussels’ price per pound on the market, as larger mussels have a better meat-to-shell ratio. The real problem, he said, is total reliance on the export market. Still, he admits that mussels are a far cry from his favorite seafood.
Conch is mainly exported to Asia from the vineyard. — Ray Ewing
Chef Deon Thomas, who runs Chef Deon’s Kitchen outside of the VFW in Oak Bluffs, is one of the few locals to use the fang, as he wrote in his cookbook, Conch Cookery. Growing up in Jamaica, Mr. Thomas became acquainted with the queen conch, a large southern relative of the whelk whose herbivorous lifestyle gives it a different flavor.
“Nevertheless,” Mr. Thomas said in a recent interview with the Gazette, “we think it’s a clam.”
Mr. Thomas believes improper cooking methods, particularly cooking in the shell, have accustomed many would-be scallop eaters to the ingredient.
“Cooking it indoors is the biggest mistake,” he said. “It hardens the muscles, and if you cook it with the guts, there will be a taste.”
Instead, he recommends flash-freezing the clam, after which you can separate the tenders — great seared in garlic butter — and the tougher parts, which are better suited to soups or fritters.
“If you like calamari and scallops, you’ll like whelks,” he said. “It’s for the fine palate.”
The AD Thor embarks on a conching expedition. — Ray Ewing
But for now, the mussel market on the island remains fairly small. Most of the local energy is focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the species. Ms Edmundson said the Trust is developing a method for fishermen to contribute data to their research to get a more complete picture of whelk movements and behaviour. They’re also testing alternative clam baits, like invasive green crabs.
And as the mussel season draws to a close for the year, Mr. Osmers focuses on the day-to-day. The AD Thorn is in need of repairs and his uncle’s smaller stature means he has yet to refurbish the roof to better suit his new 1.8m owner.
As he traveled back and forth between trapping sites, Mr. Osmers sorted his catch by sliding each snail into the square aluminum taco shell, which measures regulation-sized clams.
“It’s hard to make a dollar stick,” he said, lamenting the precarious life of a fisherman.