Catches of cod, haddock, several kinds of flounder and other groundfish have fallen so low that the secretary of commerce on Thursday declared a disaster for the Northeast's commercial fishery.
The disaster declaration applies to groundfish fisheries in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut, making fisheries in those states eligible to receive federal disaster assistance, pending congressional approval. It applies to cod, haddock, redfish, American plaice, pollock, white hake, ocean pout and three kinds of flounder — yellowtail, winter and windowpane.
In Connecticut, the declaration applies to the small remaining groundfish fishery based in Stonington, said David Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Most of the vessels ported in Stonington fish for lobster or scallops, or have shifted from groundfish to species such as squid and whiting.
The main species of groundfish still caught by Connecticut fishermen are yellowtail flounder, cod and winter flounder, Simpson said.
"A little bit of assistance coming our way for our small groundfishery would be great," Simpson said.
In an Aug. 23 letter to Rebecca Blank, the acting secretary of commerce, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy requested the disaster declaration, noting that although the state's groundfishery is small, it has declined sharply. Figures included in the letter show that in 2010, the value of the groundfish catch landed in Connecticut was only $13,316, down from $176,088 two years earlier. Connecticut-registered vessels landed an additional $55,881 worth of groundfish in other states, mainly Rhode Island and New York, in 2010, down from $358,968 in 2008.
For all of New England, groundfish landings totaled $83.3 million in 2010, compared to $90.1 million in 2008.
In his letter, Malloy lists climate change as a main cause of population declines of flounder, a species that favors colder waters. The decline has caused groundfish fishermen to shift to species such as monkfish, scup and summer flounder, Malloy wrote, increasing pressure on those fisheries.
Alan Chaplaski, a Stonington fisherman who owns the vessel Neptune, said he quit fishing for flounder several years ago as restrictions on the fishery cut his landings severely. His vessel now catches mainly squid and whiting.
He said there are only a couple of vessels in Stonington that still land groundfish part time, and fish for other species the other times.
"You can't make a living at it," he said.
He doubts the disaster declaration will make much difference, and said federal regulations are driving out small-scale fishermen in favor of large ones.
In a statement, Blank, the commerce secretary, said the groundfish fishery has not rebuilt despite fishermen's adherence to catch limits.
"Further cuts to catch limits may be necessary in the 2013 fishing season," she said.