The Secret Life of Whelks


Local fisherman leads effort to better understand, manage whelk fishery…

by Rudi Hempe
Photos by Melissa Devine

 

Underwater, whelks are slow-moving sea snails that like to pry open and devour quahogs. They are also the unlikely focus  of a campaign by an energetic woman who catches them for a living to protect her chosen occupation.

Katie Eagan is a whelk fisherman, or as she and most of the other 200-plus whelk fishermen in Rhode Island prefer to call themselves, a “conch fisherman,” even though the larger and quite different conchs live in far warmer waters down South.

WhelkTechnically whelks are gastropod mollusks that ar carnivorous (conchs, on the other hand, are herbivorous).In Rhode Island there are three species of whelk:

  • Channeled whelk (Busycotypus canaliculatus),
  • Knobbed whelk (Busycon carica) and
  • Lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum).

The species favored by fishermen and dealers is the chan- neled whelk. The knobbed whelk, with its thick shell, does not render as much meat per pound and the lightning whelk is rarely captured.

Whelks are caught using rectangular wire or wooden traps that are baited with horseshoe crabs, quahogs, or fish parts. The traps are smaller and simpler in design than lobster traps.

The traps’ sides are lined with rubber, plastic, or wood strips that make it easier for the whelks to climb up to the top. Once there, they fall through a large square opening. A wire rim around the opening prevents them from getting out.The traps, five or more, are usually attached to a line with a special harness. When fishermen winch up the traps, the design of the harness prevents the traps from turning upside down, thus reducing the chance of dumping the catch. Traps are pulled every 2-3 days, depending on weather conditions.

At age 30, Eagan has fallen in love with a job that requires her to get up at dawn seven days a week to cruise parts of Narragansett Bay harvesting creatures that end up on plates in Asia and in the popular “snail salad” stateside.

There are two whelk-fishing seasons—spring (April until late June) and fall (October until “the snow flies”) says Eagan. In the dead of winter, whelks burrow into the mud. When the water warms up, they emerge to feed. When the water gets too warm, they burrow in the mud again to mate, not coming out until the fall when the water cools. Between seasons Eagan goes lobstering or shore-quahogging with her father.

Eagan graduated in 2006 from the URI MarineAffairs program. Soon after she decided to go to Fiji as a PeaceCorps volunteer to help small communities with their fisheries management and data collection issues. “It was not in the tourist area,” she laughs, explaining she was based in an area of 11 fishing villages quite distant from the travel-poster version of Fiji.

When she planned to return home, “I started to think the best thing for me was to…go fishing with my Dad,” who, she notes, had to figure out whether it was economically feasible to take on a full-time hand.  It was—but getting the necessary commercial licenses was not a simple matter. At the time, management restrictions meant she couldn’t get a lobster or quahog license. She decided to go for a whelk license because it was available.

“When I started, the  prices were not really high—it was just something we did” between lobster and quahog seasons, she says.

But now the picture is different. The market for whelk has grown substantially and the prices are up. New buyers got into the market and started shipping whelk overseas—the majority of whelk meat is sent to China—although the domestic market has increased with the popularity of snail salad, especially around the holidays.

The rising whelk market has attracted a lot of fishermen, so much so that Eagan,with her marine affairs education, started worrying about the future of the fishery. For the most part, the whelk fishery is unregulated. There is a state minimum  size for whelk—2.75 inches for the shell width or 4.75 inches for the shell length. However, Eagan says, those figures were not based on science but rather on market desirability. In fact, there is very little research on whelks—little is known about their growth rate, maturity, migration, diet, and preferred habitats.

“It’s pretty amazing how little we know about them,” says Eagan.

The most recent study was done last spring by another URI alum, with a degree in fisheries, Steven H. Wilcox, now a biologist at the Massachusetts Department of Marine Resources, who did a master’s thesis at UMass-Dartmouth on the size and age of maturation of channeled whelk. Wilcox raised the question whether the current market-established minimum sizes are conducive to protecting the fishery.

Eagan is concerned about the same thing, so, one day last winter when she heard that Rhode Island Sea Grant had issued a request for proposals for grants to under take shellfish research to aid management, she decided to apply. The problem was the deadline for the pre- proposals was two days away. She called on Kathleen Castro, a lobster fisheries researcher Eagan knew from her URI student days, who came to the rescue.

“I knew nothing about whelks,” confesses Castro. “But when she called me up and said she and other fishermen were concerned about the  future of the fishery, I said I would help her.”

The pre-proposal was dashed off, followed by a more detailed proposal,  and in September, Sea Grant awarded a $185,000 grant for the two-year research project that began in February. The proposal itself was to conduct research about the biology and ecology of whelk in Rhode Island, as well as the fishery, that would serve as the  basis for establishing a management plan. However, Castro recommended that Eagan also form a whelk association, which would have more of a say in the management process than an individual fisherman might.

Katie Eagan, whelk fishermen out to harvest

Katie Eagan, whelk fishermen out to harvest

The project will start this winter with meetings with whelk fishermen. Involved will be Carlos Garcia-Quijano, a URI anthropologist who will conduct the sessions designed to obtain local knowledge. Fishermen “are the best observers,” Castro says, adding that they will be involved collecting and understanding the data throughout the project, “and they  are going to take that to the management process.” The project will also involve the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.

To gather the data, tablet computers, purchased through the grant, will be issued to the 20 participating fishermen,  who will upload their data daily to a cloud-based system. A local Wireless Zone firm is providing the tablets at a discount, and will also train the fishermen in their use.

Part of the study will even put whelks on camera. Underwater cameras will be attached to at least one trap to capture the whelks in action—their approach to traps, their capture, and perhaps their escape. (Obviously high-speed cameras will not be needed.) Organizing the whelk fishermen is the task on Eagan’s plate. “Now we have to get people on board, says Eagan, who will serve as industry liaison, develop meeting agendas, provide input to participating fishermen, and collect local knowledge.

“The reality is if we don’t regulate it somehow we won’t be able to fish,” continues Eagan. “I would not say the way it is fished now will become a problem, but it has the potential if not done properly.”

“This is an opportunity for the fishermen and the scientists to work together and to use each other’s knowledge to manage this fishery, with a lot of input from the fishermen because we have the practical knowledge and have been  following the species for a long time,” saysEagan.