It might not be working, but Pete Wencel is doing all he can to rebalance the trade deficit between the United States and China, one shellfish at a time. Wencel says this as he unloads and weighs bags of conch on the dock at Alice’s Fish Market in Greenport.
The catch doesn’t smell too good. “That’s because they puke up the bait,” says Ben, Wencel’s son. Good to know.
The two men are part of one of the biggest fisheries on the East Coast that almost no one knows about. For seven months of the year, they go out and gather pots they’ve baited with horseshoe crabs and fish scrap to harvest channeled whelk, known as conch by local fisherman. Most of the snails, which Italians have been eating as scungilli for time immemorial, are processed and frozen then loaded on boats headed for China.
Wencel was one of the few conch fishermen—and they’re mostly men—willing to talk about the fishery. In true fisherman fashion, keeping mum on the latest hot spot, they didn’t want any newcomers horning in on their lucrative business, which many shifted to after the decline of the Long Island lobster population and the increase in state and federal fishing regulations.
The conch market is not currently regulated, says Gregg Rivara, an aquaculture specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, possibly because the snails are viewed as pests or predators since they eat clams and oysters.
The horseshoe crab, the bulk of the bait in the conch pots, is regulated under a management plan directed by the DEC, says Wencel, who served on the plan’s advisory committee for the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Organization, which established a cap on landings for the bait fishery.
In his business, where he’s been for 40 years, Wencel harvests only conchs that have reached 5.5 inches, which is when he believes they are sexually mature. The overhead, he says, is tremendous with the traps, boat, freezers and bait—horseshoe crab costs $2.50 a pound, and he must make it last.
If not for the crab, then for his son, who looks to spend his life on the water, conch puke and all.