By Doreen Leggett
Stephanie Sykes, after a day fishing on the F/V Peggy B II, stood behind a folding table at Nauset Marine East in Orleans with several conch shells and a trap.
She looked at a crowd gathered at the Meet the Fleet event and picked up a flat, mottled brown, oblong object. It was about the size of a thumb and looked leathery.
Sykes asked what it was.
Robert Smaglia, a Meet the Fleet veteran, knew right away.
“It’s the door,” he said.
“The operculum officially,” said Sykes, grinning.
The operculum, which means “little lid,” closes the opening in a conch shell, and is the first thing that falls off when the conch dies so buyers look for its telltale.
“They really like them live,” she said.
The buyer who Ron Braun, captain of the Peggy B, sells to had donated conch to the event held in Orleans last evening, Wednesday, September 28. Conch as well as Jonah crab were transformed into delicious appetizers for attendees by Tyler and Cam Hatfield, brothers who grew up in Harwich and own The Rail restaurant in Orleans.
Conch and Jonah crab aren’t easy to purchase on the Cape. But if those who took a taste have anything to say about it, that will change soon. The brothers were told to put them on the menu right away.
That sentiment is one motivation behind Meet the Fleet – introducing local seafood, and the fishermen who catch it, to the community. Jennifer Bryant, development director at the Fishermen’s Alliance, said people learn at least one new thing when they attend the event. And it’s typically more like seven.
For this event, noteworthy facts included how conch climb up the side of the open-topped trap to drop in and enjoy the bait – typically mussels – and that baby conch have a layer of what looks like carpet on their shells.
“They are super fuzzy,” Sykes said.
Sykes was joined by Kurt Martin and Andrew Spalt, who fish for Jonah crab among other species, and Bill Amaru, who has been fishing local waters for 50 years.
Martin, like Amaru an Orleans resident, answered questions about Jonah crab, while Sykes covered conch.
“They are both very sustainable fisheries,” Sykes said.
She had two examples of whelk (aka conch) on display: channeled and knobbed. Sykes said they catch more of the chaneled whelk, which fetch more money.
“The knobby shells are prettier,” Sykes added. Those shells were going to Falmouth to be made into jewelry.
Jonah crab is not a new fishery, but it is growing and Martin has begun to catch them in the winter months; he’ll start around November because they are sensitive to temperature.
Spalt, who focuses more on Jonah crab, said he installed a refrigerated seawater system (RSW) in order to sell them in the summer as well as the colder months.
Processing is important, said Spalt, because Jonah crab has a very hard shell. There are processing facilities in Canada, but also New Bedford and that company sells to BJs and Walmart. Locally, people can buy crab at Fishermen’s View, a restaurant and fish market in Sandwich.
Martin said the plant in New Bedford has a centrifuge, which separates meat from shells; the meat goes to retail and the shells become organic fertilizer.
“There is a lot of growth potential,” Spalt said.
Martin said the price to the boat has increased from 50 cents a pound to $2.30, which makes sense to him.
“Jonah crab are one of the finest flavors out there,” he said.
Meet the Fleet is supported in part by a NOAA Fisheries’ Saltonstall Kennedy Grant (# NA22NMF4270126). NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.