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 keeps crew member Bill Baptiste busy as Braun searches out his line of yellow and white-striped buoys in Nantucket Sound.
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?”
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 three-and-one-eighth inches, as measured by a gauge every fishermen must carry, and it will go up one-eighth 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 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.”
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 he headed down and found a place to live.
A bit later, in 1978, he bought a house in Yarmouth and 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 full time, 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.
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.”
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.