Northshore Harbormasters Association

Lobstermen seek ban of mechanized urchin fishing in Salem Sound

The Salem Evening News
Friday, May 25, 2001

By Jon Chesto

BOSTON -- John Newberry remembers diving in the waters off Beverly's coast as a child, occasionally frightened by the thick vegetation that confronted him.

Now, the Beverly Farms resident often sees barren stretches instead.

"It's like a desert down there," Newberry, a recreational diver, said yesterday in an interview at the Statehouse. "It's unbelievable what has happened."

Newberry, like many divers and lobstermen from the North Shore, believes one of the main culprits is the region's relatively small urchin fishing industry.

He urged the Natural Resources committee yesterday to endorse a bill that would ban the method used by many urchin fishermen, most of whom hail from Gloucester, that involves dragging heavy equipment across the ocean floor. The bill would still allow fishermen to dive for the urchins.

In recent years, the conflict has often pitted urchin and lobster fishermen in the area against each other.

But the issue has also divided the typically congenial North Shore delegation. Rep. Douglas Petersen, D-Marblehead, initially filed the bill in the last legislative session, and it's co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Cahill, D-Beverly, and Rep. Theodore Speliotis, D-Danvers.

But Gloucester's two lawmakers - Rep. Anthony Verga and Sen. Bruce Tarr - remain skeptical of the ban, and both of them sit on the Natural Resources committee. Although both say they are keeping an open mind, they also expressed reservations about the proposal.

In separate interviews, Tarr and Verga said the issue belongs in front of the state's Division of Marine Fisheries. They said the regulatory agency has the expertise to deal with the problem.

"They have not seen fit to enact this kind of prohibition, and there's got to be a reason for that," Tarr said.

He said that while Salem Sound has suffered from environmental damage in the past, it's not clear whether a significant portion of that has come from urchin dragging.

"I'm very concerned whenever we try to close off a part of the ocean to a particular constituency," Tarr said. "We (could) be shutting down a fishery for what could be very questionable damage to the environment."

Petersen said he initially filed the bill last year in response to concerns raised by local lobstermen and scuba divers who said the draggers were causing an increasing amount of damage, particularly in Salem Sound.

Lobstermen said the dredging has damaged their traps and injured lobsters and other forms of sea life.

In response to the conflict, state regulators changed the urchin fishing season last year to avoid a significant overlap with the prime months for catching lobsters.

Jay Michaud, a lobsterman from Marblehead, said the season change made a major difference in reducing the amount of lobster traps that have been caught up by the draggers.

But Michaud said the change still doesn't adequately address the greater issue of protecting the underwater habitat in Salem Sound.

"We're losing generations of fish, generations of lobster, generations of crabs," Michaud said.

The committee endorsed the bill last year, but it never made it to the House or Senate floor for a vote, Petersen said.

The bill could have a tougher time making it out of committee this year because House Speaker Tom Finneran removed Petersen, once the committee's House chairman, from the committee in January.

Petersen said he refiled the bill because he still receives phone calls about the issue. Petersen said he doesn't have proof Salem Sound is being permanently damaged in a major way, but he's been warned by enough people that the issue deserves serious consideration.

"I don't feel confident about allowing the dragging for sea urchins over a period of time," Petersen said. "I don't want to turn around ten years from now and have no lobsters in Salem Sound. I'd much rather err on the side of caution."


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