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Codfish Nursery Plan Promoted

NEW ENGLAND - Tom Osmers of West Tisbury is leading efforts to bring back cod by using saltwater hatcheries. Cod was once the most valued fish in Vineyard and New England waters, but has been in severe decline for years. Now, to help the fish recover, a group of Island fishermen are moving ahead with a plan to open and operate a cod nursery on the Vineyard.

Last week, a small group of Vineyarders went to Portsmouth, N.H., to take a tour of a saltwater fish hatchery where cod and other saltwater fish are being spawned and raised. The trip is but one of many small steps being taken to begin what is being called the Martha's Vineyard Cod Fish Restoration Project.

Tom Osmers, the West Tisbury shellfish constable, has been nicknamed the Codfather of the Vineyard effort to bring cod back to local waters. He and his colleagues met in April with Island selectmen. He has taken his ideas to Woods Hole fishery scientists. And he has taken trips to the mainland to talk to federal regulators.

His passionate drive from vivid memories of going fishing for cod when they were plentiful in Vineyard waters.

The trip to Portsmouth, on May 24, included examining another option to help Vineyard fishermen. The fishermen went offshore to the Isles of Shoals to see how blue mussels are raised in the open ocean.

Mr. Osmers said Island fishermen no longer can wait on the efforts of government regulators to revive commercial fisheries. With so many closures to fishermen over the years, Mr. Osmers said, "We have waited 17 years for the government to bring back the cod and it hasn't happened. We can't wait.

"This is our chance," he said. "Before we step off into ocean aquaculture, let us pay attention to our chance to restore our own historical fishery, which has served us so well for all these centuries. If we wait for the government, it won't happen. This has got to happen from the inside out, it is not going to happen by the outside working in."

Mr. Osmers has a vision of Island fishermen raising juvenile cod and harvesting them in Island waters. The Vineyard waters once were filled with cod from fall to spring and Mr. Osmers believes the fish used these waters to spawn and feed.

Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman who formerly ran a wholesale fish buying operation in Tisbury, went on the May 24 trip and said he was deeply moved by the experience. Mr. Doty wants to see the Vineyard move forward in restoring the cod fishery.

Rick Karney, director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, an organization which for more than 30 years has advocated and worked on spawning shellfish and releasing them into the Island's coastal ponds, also went on the trip. Additional participants included Scott Lindell, a scientist at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Emmett Carroll of Chilmark, and Hollis Smith and Brian (Chip) Vanderhoop from Aquinnah.

At Portsmouth, the Vineyarders visited Great Bay Aquaculture, the operator of the saltwater fish hatchery.

"Great Bay Aquaculture is a private company that is raising cod, black sea bass and fluke," Mr. Doty said. "We stayed there for three hours and got a complete tour. The hatchery spawns and takes the cod up to three inches in size and sells them. Almost all of the fish they raise are shipped to other countries, like Canada."

The cod are raised to market size in those countries and then sold. Mr. Doty said the Island fishermen want to do the same.

"These guys fish for wild stocks in the ocean," Mr. Karney said of the Island fishermen. "I think the trip pointed them to thinking of the potential of aquaculture. We can tell them and show pictures of the work of aquaculture but when they actually see the fish live, I think it makes a big impression."

As the plan now stands, Mr. Doty said: "We could buy 10,000 cod at three inches in size in October. We could put them in cages in the open waters, perhaps Menemsha Pond, nurse them from October to April when they are 8 to 9 inches in size. We could tag them and release them into the wild."

But a more complicated regulatory hurdle awaits, since Mr. Osmers said he'd like to get an area of Vineyard waters set aside for the Vineyard's small-boat fishermen.

To get it, he'd have to take the Vineyard restoration plan to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees all the ground fish that swim in the waters of the Vineyard and Georges Bank. Right now the council is under a lot of criticism for closing huge areas to fishing because of the decline in cod.

"We used to have cod from Thanksgiving to Easter," Mr. Osmers said. "We are in the middle, in a central location of a river of cod that used to come up from the south and east of Nantucket Shoals and move up Muskeget Channel and go west and fill all the shores of Martha's Vineyard, all the way to Long Island.

"I am looking at a more passive way to catch fish, a more fish-friendly version, a type of fishing that doesn't alter the environment," he said. "I want a fishery that will allow the juveniles to live and it doesn't destroy the environment that creates fishing grounds."

Source: The Vineyard Gazette