Cayman fishermen and women are reminded that killing whelks to use as bait or for cooking is illegal during the closed season.
Both the police and the Department of Environment warn that the season for whelks is closed and does not open until 1 Nov.
During this time, no one is allowed to take, sell, purchase or receive whelks on Grand Cayman, Little Cayman or Cayman Brac. This also goes for chitons, periwinkles and bleeding teeth.
Whelks are edible sea snails, and some Caymanians love them.
Stew whelk is a popular Caymanian traditional dish. Whelks are inter-tidal, and people often pick them off the rocks when there is calm weather, but it’s much harder to collect whelks during rough weather. After that, there is the picking, boiling and grinding before they are edible. Caymanians stew them in coconut milk seasoned with onion and Scotch bonnet pepper, and a flour dough called ‘Sea Pie’ is added to the pot. They sometimes make conch soup with some added whelks.
Killing for use as bait was not a primary threat affecting whelk when the seasonal restriction was put in place. Department of Environment’s John Bothwell said it was because people kept using the animals as food.
According to Bothwell, the current status of the whelk populations on the three islands is a mystery due to insufficient data. Collecting whelk out of season without giving them time to replenish could become a major threat to their existence.
He said the Department relies on hearing back from people on the status of the whelk population, and what they think should be done about it.
Eighty-one-year-old Brac fisherman Tenson Ebanks said whelks are still plentiful on Cayman Brac, but he does not know much about Grand Cayman.
He knows there is an open and closed season for whelk, but it has left him wondering how they replenish so fast on Cayman Brac.
“It’s amazing, you would have to see this for yourself to believe it, that just in a matter of a season, these whelks can produce so much and get to such a large size from one season to the next,” he said.
He said there is no special breeding grounds on the Brac for whelks that he can see. They breed all over the island and he thinks the sperm moves up and down with the current and the tides. Most people use soldier crab for bait, not whelk, he said.
Fifty-year-old fisherwoman Susan Matthews said there are times when she will pick a whelk and put it on the line when it’s in season, but she has not seen other people doing it that much lately, because mostly everyone uses soldier crab, squid or octopus to catch fish. “The season is closed now, but when it’s open, everyone sets out with a bucket to get whelks,” she said.
“Whelks in Caymans is just about extinct,” said 67-year-old fisherman Olson Levy.
“The marine officers were supposed to shut it down long ago for the next 10 years because conch, lobsters and whelks are being depleted fast … let it be no season for at least 10 years … It is over-fishing by tour boats and fishermen and poachers, it has to stop,” Levy said.
Looking at whelks dating back to the 50s, Levy said there were more than enough for the small populations on Grand Cayman, but over-hunting has taken away that excess. Whelks also make good bait.
“In Cayman, we can’t get them as food no more, much less bait.” Levy said he used a lot of whelk for bait. First you must pound it with a rock to tenderise it, before attaching it to the hook. It has the same flavour as conch to catch snappers, grunts, yellow fin, shad and most other small fish, Levy said.