Conch fishing in the Sound
By Doreen Leggett
When Ronnie Braun was a young fisherman captaining the Peggy B, he used to cruise by buoys strung in a line, and they weren’t marking lobster traps.
He always wondered what they were, but since he was catching thousands of pounds of cod a day, he didn’t think much of it.
“I thought those days would never end,” Braun said.
But they did.
Braun, whose only career has been fishing, began involving himself in other ways like trying to sell live cod for a larger profit margin. When he talked to some dealers selling to Asian markets, they asked if he knew about a sea snail that was a delicacy overseas -- conch.
“I didn’t even know what they were,” Braun remembered.
That was 20 years ago and Braun ended up buying a state conch permit to work off a skiff, but soon re-did his next boat, the Peggy B II, to catch conch and sea bass.
“It was either go 140 miles offshore to look for codfish or come closer for conch,” he said.
Braun now sets those strings of buoys he used to wonder about. One recent morning he set out to check 200 traps he had baited the day before.
His day starts long before he backs his boat out of Wychmere Harbor in Harwich at 6 a.m. He needs to make the drive from his home in Dennis to the industrial park in Chatham to buy bait, frozen horseshoe crabs and quahogs that keep crew member Bill Baptiste busy as Braun searches out his line of yellow and white-striped buoys in Nantucket Sound.
During the steam, Baptiste wields a mini-ax to smash horseshoe crabs into thirds and break up the clams. They will be divvied up, put in mesh bags and tied into the conch pots later.
The pots are big and square, with metal mesh and wood slats. The tops are open, bottoms lined with concrete to weigh them down so they settle on the bottom, 20 to 50 feet below.
“The heavier they are the better they seem to work,” Braun said. “Figures, doesn’t it?”
They should last for a season or more, but his strings of 20 traps each do get reduced to 17 or 18, some being crushed or displaced by fishing draggers who use the same waters. He often has to replace them.
The traps are open because the conch will smell the bait, crawl up and over the top, then fall inside. They can’t get out.
The conch fishery is limited; you have to buy an existing permit to get into it. But there is no limit to how many conch Braun can bring in a day, though they must be above a minimum size. Anywhere from 400 to 450 pounds is a good day’s trip, which can often mean 10 or 11 hours depending on steaming time.
When cod and haddock catches fell, Braun wasn’t the only captain who turned to conch.
“We had a little bit of a gold rush,” he remembers.
But the harvest has declined. The conch catch dropped from about 3.6 million pounds in 2012 to a million or a million and a half the last few years.
Braun says stricter regulations are causing some to drop out of the fishery. The minimum size for keeping a conch shell now is 3 1/8 inches, as measured by a gauge every fishermen must carry, and it will go up 1/8 of an inch every two years until 2029. The idea is that more breeding females will be left in the population.
Braun isn’t sure the population really is tailing off; his pots still seem to be loaded, though mostly filled with animals too small to harvest.
“Looks great for the future,” he said, though with all the conch he is throwing back he still isn’t seeing bigger ones the following year, so that adds to the mystery.
When Braun spots his buoys, he snags each line with gaff as he skims by (only missing a few on first pass for the entire day) and winches a trap onboard. Braun then slides it across the rail to Baptiste who rifles through the take, throwing back most; a pot with 40 or so conch might yield only three into the tote to take to market.
“That’s the longest part of any day, culling through,” Braun said.
Baptiste puts marginal ones aside to check later, but he is so adept at eyeballing that the gauge backs him up most times.
When they re-bait and re-set, they’ll play out the traps closer or farther apart depending on how they fished. Braun has different lines charted so he knows his locations and history.
When he started he got about 65 cents a pound, shell weight included. Now it is up around $4. The overhead and price are fairly consistent.
“I can do this every day,” he said. “It’s fine.”
Conch, actually called channeled whelk, are meat-eaters. On some, a long thin trunk-like appendage can be seen. That proboscis is what the conch uses to keep a clam open to eat the liquefied meat after the conch’s enzymes have done their work, Braun said.
“I have nightmares about that, what a way to go,” he smiled.
Braun and Baptiste don’t talk a lot while they work (Braun did ask where his blueberry muffin went; Baptiste said he used it as a bait), but they have long history together.
Braun credits Baptiste with saving his life when the first Peggy B went down about 14 miles off Monomoy years ago.
“If he hadn’t come up the stairs with the survival suits we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about that.”
Braun‘s dad, also Ron, was a commercial fisherman (the Peggy B is named after Ronnie’s mom) but he had other jobs – he ran a restaurant and opened a tackle shop.
When the tackle business began to take off the father asked young Ronnie to come to the Cape and run the boat. His family was living in Marshfield at the time and he was just finishing at Norfolk Agricultural School, so headed down and found a place to live.
A bit later, in 1978, he bought a house in Yarmouth, near Captain Jan Margeson, who owns the fishing vessel Great Pumpkin. Braun remembers the neighborhood as full of fishermen. He was running his dad’s boat, but other times he was crewing for different captains.
When his dad asked him to come back and run the boat fulltime he had a condition; “only if you let me buy it.” His dad agreed.
Paul Parker, former chief executive officer of the Hook Fishermen’s Association – which became the Fishermen’s Alliance -- remembers meeting Braun in 1997. The day after they met Braun invited Parker to go tuna fishing with him. As the season closed Braun got a paycheck ready, but Parker demurred.
“For me, catching a bluefin tuna was something I had only read about in magazines,” Parker remembered.
But Braun had a ready response.
“I love what I do too, but I have to make a living. Keep the check,” he told a young Parker.
Parker ended up spending about four years on and off crewing on Braun’s boat and said that as crew there are umpteen ways you can screw up and cause headaches for the captain.
“He never raised his voice,” he said.
Parker had a lot of fun during those years.
“We were on the same page,” said Parker. “We wanted to catch fish, and we caught a lot of fish, but there wasn’t a drive to catch everything in the ocean.”
Although conching is an entirely different way of fishing, Braun is ok with that. He is unsure about the future because bigger animals have not materialized. As July 4 came and went the conch catch went up a bit, but as the water warms it will drop back down again and that is when he will turn his attention to sea bass, which he will fish three days a week.
“It’s a good little fill-in,” said Braun, adding that sea bass days are usually shorter, which is a bonus.
The state limit for sea bass is usually hit in September, which is when the water is cooling down and the conching is good again so he will go back.
The past few years he has thought about returning to cod fishing over the winter. He owns his own quota and has talked with the Fishermen’s Alliance, of which he is a founding member, about leasing some more.
“Sounds like groundfish may be coming back,” he said.
But so far he hasn’t done it. He usually goes away for part of the winter with his wife Rose, who he barely gets to see during the summer because their schedules are both full and opposite; she is a waitress, on her way to work when he’s on his way home.
“We go somewhere warm,” he said, “and you know what I do? Fish. I’ve never been anywhere there hasn’t been water.”