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Sure-footed in the hiking boots that are necessary attire for her unique summer job, Kim Ziegler clambered down the rocks along the shore at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton, clipboard in hand.
Approaching a couple fishing from a flat-topped boulder overlooking the mouth of the Thames River and Long Island Sound, just as the sky was clearing after the morning rain last Thursday, Ziegler opened a friendly conversation.
"Hi there. What are you fishing for today?" asked Ziegler, a recent graduate of the University of Vermont's environmental studies program.
"Anything we can catch," replied Janine Holt, with her pole at her side as Matthew Potter stretched out below, an open box of seaweed and sand worms between them. "Actually, anything but cunner."
Ziegler posed a few simple questions and recorded the answers, learning that the two Groton residents are both unemployed, fish from shore a couple of times a week, and had caught a black sea bass from these rocks last week but had thrown it back because it was out of season.
"Do you have any comments about shore fishing in Connecticut, things we do well or could do better?" asked Ziegler, who spends her off-work hours fishing from a kayak near her grandmother's cottage in Old Saybrook.
"People have to clean up after themselves," Holt replied. "We take a couple of bags of trash out of every site we go to."
She handed Holt a postcard-sized form, asking her to fill it out when they were done fishing for the day, recording whether they'd caught any fish, the size and type, and gave them a free measuring tape and pencil as thank-you gifts. As an incentive, Ziegler added, those who deposit their "creel cards" in metal drop boxes at the fishing sites or in the mail would have their names entered in a raffle for fishing gear.
It was the fourth of nine stops Ziegler, seasonal resource assistant for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, made on her regular route to selected shore fishing sites in southeastern Connecticut, and the first where she found fishermen that day.
Joining her that afternoon on the coastal tour was Greg Wojcik, DEEP fisheries technician who oversees Ziegler and two other seasonal workers surveying shore fishermen this summer. The two would search for fishermen in Stonington on the jetty at DuBois Beach and the boardwalk near the town dock, and on the rocks at Eastern Point Beach in Groton and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. They'd count eight figures extending poles into the dark waters off the pier at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London, another seven along the grassy strip at Cini Park in Niantic, but none at the nearby railroad beach under the Niantic River Bridge. They'd end the day five hours later at the fishing pier at DEEP Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme. With nine fishermen, it was the busiest of the sites that day. Other days Ziegler would add Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic, City Pier in New London, Saybrook Point and Meigs Point at Hammonassett Beach State Park in Madison to her itinerary, or spend a few hours in the office entering the data.
"We started the creel surveys this year, and we'll do it through October," Wojcik said. "We've handed out 220 creel cards since May 1. Before we started this, we really didn't know how much activity we had."
The purpose, he explained, is to gather data on the anglers who cast from shorelines, jetties and docks rather than boats, an important but often overlooked sector of the more than 145,000 people who hold marine fishing licenses. Outings by these fishermen comprise an estimated one-quarter of the 1.2 million fishing trips in Connecticut in 2013, with numbers of fishermen and fish coming together on boats making up the vast majority.
In an effort to make up for some of the disadvantages shore anglers face in trying to catch fish, DEEP in 2011 began the Enhanced Shore Fishing Program. It allows shore anglers to catch and keep two of the most abundant species, summer flounder and scup - also called porgy - at smaller legal sizes than are allowed from boats at 45 coastal sites chosen because of good public access, known prevalence of those two species and other factors. At these sites, summer flounder can be kept at 16 inches instead of 18 inches, and scup can be kept at 9 instead of 10 inches. The program, he said, was created in response to frustration DEEP heard from shore fishermen as the legal size for various species kept increasing.
"This focuses on the subsistence fishermen, who are fishing to try to feed their families," Wojcik said. "And it also helps because fish are smaller closer to shore."
Connecticut, he said, is the only state on the Atlantic coast offering smaller sizes to shore fishermen thus far, though other states are considering it. At the request of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a multi-state body that oversees regulations for the East Coast, DEEP is using federal grant funds to survey shore fishermen to learn about the impact of the smaller size limits, Wojcik said, and at the same time gain valuable feedback from the regular folks who use the state's waters.
At Cini Park, Dan Lucente of Niantic used an open-ended survey question as a chance to tell Wojcik about his concerns that commercial fishermen in Virginia and Maryland are being allowed to take striped bass at a smaller legal sizes than most other states, and depleting the supply for Connecticut recreational anglers.
"It's a big problem," said Lucente, who estimated that he fishes about 50 times a year, usually from a boat but about one-quarter of the time from shore. "You don't have to be a professional biologist to know that." Earlier that day, he had caught a striper from the rocks at Cini Park. He threw it back, as he often does when he hooks a fish.
A few feet from Lucente, Charles Joskiewich of Montville was set up with a cooler, folding camp chair and an array of open lure boxes. He told Ziegler he goes fishing about 100 times a year.
"I wish you had more access," he said. "A lot of places I used to fish as a kid I can't get to anymore."
Ziegler said most everyone she interviews is eager to provide information, and many welcome the chance to tell DEEP what's on their mind when it comes to fishing.
"Most people are in a good mood," she said. "They're off work, on their free time, and if they're not catching anything, why not talk to me?"