Stonington about to lose link to the sea that has endured for 134 years

Fourth-generation owner Jeff Wilcox works on a quiet day at his family's business Wilcox Marine Supply in Stonington on Tuesday. Wilcox will soon be closing the store, which has been in business since 1879.
Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Fourth-generation owner Jeff Wilcox works on a quiet day at his family's business Wilcox Marine Supply in Stonington on Tuesday. Wilcox will soon be closing the store, which has been in business since 1879.

Stonington - The steady demise of the commercial fishing industry has claimed another victim - one of the town's oldest businesses.

Family-owned Wilcox Marine Supply, which began in 1879, will close early next year mainly because of increasingly strict commercial fishing regulations that have led to a dramatic decline in customers, according to owner Jeff Wilcox.

"You try to figure out different ways to do things so you can stay in business. I've reinvented myself several times, but I don't have any ideas left," said the 64-year-old Wilcox, whose family has run the business for four generations. "It's been in my family so long you feel like you're letting your ancestors down, but you just have to get over it."

In 2002, Wilcox moved the business from his larger quarters on Old Stonington Road back to the original Wilcox Road location as business dropped off with the decline in the commercial fishing industry. The business provides a wide array of equipment and services for owners of both commercial and recreational boats.

Wilcox said that 50 years ago, there were 50 boats in the Stonington fishing fleet, but now there are just five fishing and scallop boats. Lobstering in Long Island Sound is currently shut down.

Wilcox pointed to federal regulations that drastically limit the number of days that boats can operate and how much fish they can land in order to restore fishing stocks. He said there are no other businesses that serve commercial fishermen left in the state.

Wilcox said that the decline has gotten to the point where he paid himself just $9,000 in salary last year.

"If the customers were still here, I probably would have done this until I died," he said.

While he does have recreational boating customers, he said that season is only four months long, and private boaters are using their boats less because of high fuel costs. He said he relied on his commercial fishing customers to get him through the other eight months of the year.

"It isn't just here," he said about the effect of regulations on fishing-related businesses such as his. "It's in New Bedford, Gloucester and Point Judith. It really makes no sense. These regulations have nothing to do with conservation."

Wilcox, who began working at the business in July 1972, just days after getting out of the Navy, said he won't close until January or February because he still has to sell his remaining inventory.

The property, with sweeping views of Fishers Island Sound, has been for sale for several years.

There are two lots, one that contains his father's house and a garage, while an adjacent 3.5 acres contains the 3,000-square-foot marine supply building, a home and a garage. The property also includes 11 acres of barrier beach property across the Amtrak rail lines.

As for what he'll do next, the longtime volunteer firefighter with the Quiambaug department said it won't be sitting around relaxing.

"I may do that for a while, but I know it won't last," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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