ORLEANS — After just his first meeting as a member of the state’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, commercial fisherman Bill Amaru had good news for fellow supporters of dredging Nauset Estuary.
“We are going to discuss a new survey of fish stocks in the estuaries where dredging will be taking place to see if the window for dredging can be expanded,” Amaru wrote in an email. “Certain species that were abundant years ago have disappeared due to changing predator/prey relationships.”
Having more months each year in which to dredge would be a bonus for the complicated Nauset Estuary dredging project, now in a lengthy permitting process that could take two years. Amaru is a member of the Nauset Estuary Stakeholders Group as well as the town’s dredge advisory committee and shellfish and waterways improvement advisory committee.
In October, Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Amaru, a past chair of the Stellwagen Bank Advisory Council, to the state commission that approves regulatory actions by the Division of Marine Fisheries to manage marine fish including open and closed seasons and gear restrictions, among other factors. It’s an unpaid, volunteer position.
“I have some goals,” Amaru said in a recent interview. “One of them is to create a current analysis of existing fish stocks in our coastal waters. The last time they did a stock survey in state waters was in the ‘60s.” Such surveys could determine, for instance, whether winter flounder are still found in Nauset Estuary. Protections for that species limit the times of year during which dredging can be done.
“My main thing is simply to listen to commercial fishermen every day on the docks,” said Amaru. “I tell them I want them to bring their issues to me, and I’ll take them to the state and the other commissioners. I’ve already had people ask if we could change hours. We have to stop fishing in state waters at sunset. In summer, that’s not such a big deal. In winter, the sun goes down at 4:18. A couple more hours to 6 p.m. might make a big difference.”
Amaru is current as well on the big issues beyond the portfolio of a state advisory commission. He’s watched as the water gets warmer and species from the mid-Atlantic and south appear in local waters while familiar species head north. He’s read that “90 percent of carbon produced by fossil fuels is absorbed into the oceans. That changes the chemistry of the waters,” and he’s heard of a big scallop farm on the west coast of Canada where that changed chemistry may be softening shells to the point of cracking.
Then there’s the seals. Amaru sees them as competition for cod, haddock, and flounder. “As long as the seals are left alone and exploit the resource we’re not exploiting, the fish don’t stand a chance to come back,” he said. “It’s very frustrating to deal with under the political climate of the day.”
Amaru speaks almost with admiration about the region’s seals. “They go all the way to Canada,” he said. “They go out to Georges Bank, 100 miles at sea. They travel between here and Sable Island (off Nova Scotia). This particular group lives around Monomoy and Nomans (islands) but started up in Canada and now is all the way in New Jersey. They can swim in the ocean as far as they need to. They can go (down) hundreds and hundreds of feet. We have video showing gray seals on a fishing net in 800 feet of water, picking out fish as they come out. They queue up.”
Seals “are smart animals,” Amaru said. “They’re basically the wolf that millions of years ago went back into the water and adjusted to marine living… They work in packs just like wolves do.”
He’d like to see the marine mammal protection act revised to allow an analysis of how seal populations are doing. A declaration that the resource is healthy again, if that’s the case, would lead to an understanding of the high and low limits within which the species could exist. “If they’re negatively impacting other species, like the rebuilding of fish stocks, you could start exploiting seals,” Amaru said.
On the day of the interview, Amaru had been jigging for mackerel, a fish he loves. “I smother it in garlic and pepper,” he said. “It’s the richest in omega fatty acids. If everyone ate a mackerel a week, we’d live to 110.”