State's fishing fleet facing potentially 'disastrous' quota cuts for fluke

George McCagg, left, of Stonington, a full-time employee at Gambardella's Wholesale Fish Inc., located at the Stonington Town Dock in the borough, unloads bins of fresh fish caught by the fishing vessel Ruthy L on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Local fishermen have enlisted the help of the state's congressional delegation in urging relief from reduced quotas on fluke. (Tim Martin/The Day)
George McCagg, left, of Stonington, a full-time employee at Gambardella's Wholesale Fish Inc., located at the Stonington Town Dock in the borough, unloads bins of fresh fish caught by the fishing vessel Ruthy L on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Local fishermen have enlisted the help of the state's congressional delegation in urging relief from reduced quotas on fluke. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Reductions that took effect Jan. 1 in federal quotas for the commercial fluke catch could have a “disastrous” effect on the Connecticut’s small remaining fishing fleet, unless action being advocated to undo the cut is taken, the state's congressional delegation wrote in a letter to the U.S. secretary of commerce.

“It’s going to put us out of business,” Stonington fisherman Robert Guzzo, vice president of the Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen’s Association, said Wednesday. “I’ve never seen so many fish in the ocean. The fish are out there, but the science and the regulators haven’t caught up with what’s actually out there.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pressed commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross to use his authority to change how quotas for fish species including fluke — also called summer flounder — are allocated among states from the mid-Atlantic to New England.

Species such as fluke have been migrating into New England waters in greater numbers in recent years, Blumenthal and fishermen contend. But the regulatory system used by the National Marine Fisheries Service uses an outdated system that favors the mid-Atlantic states at New England’s expense, they say.

“The system is broken ... from an environmental and economic standpoint, and it’s costing jobs, and it is preventing the United States from using its fish stocks and instead has resulted in importing, which destroys livelihoods and economic well-being in the New England states,” Blumenthal told Ross during the confirmation hearing. He urged Ross to use his emergency powers to reform the system.

In response, Ross said he is interested in helping the fisheries and ensuring quotas are allocated properly. The Department of Commerce includes the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Blumenthal’s statements during the hearing came a day after he and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, sent a letter to the current commerce secretary urging that the new quotas be withdrawn.

On Jan. 1, fisheries service rules took effect that reduced the amount of fluke Connecticut’s commercial fishermen are allowed to catch in 2017 to 127,734 pounds, down from 183,366 pounds in 2016, and about half of the 2015 quota, said Mark Alexander, associate director of the fisheries division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. As one of the main fish species harvested by the state’s commercial fleet, he said, the cut will have a dramatic impact.

“It is a pretty significant reduction for Connecticut,” he said. “I can’t see how it won’t affect a lot of them.”

The New England states, he said, have been advocating without success for changes in the way fishing quotas are set. The current system, he said, doesn’t account for changing ocean conditions, forcing the state’s fishermen to throw dead fish overboard when they exceed the quotas.

“There’s high abundance and low quotas, and that just leads to discards and resentment,” Alexander said.

In their Jan. 17 letter to the current commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, Blumenthal, Murphy and Courtney said that allowing the new quotas to remain would be “disastrous for our state’s commercial fishing industry and coastal economy.”

In addition to the 30 percent reduction in 2017 compared with last year, a further 16 percent cut in 2018 is planned, the letter notes. The rule also calls for a 34 percent reduction in the commercial quota for black sea bass, another species becoming more abundant in New England waters.

“Our fleet has faced years of compounding stressors that affect the economic well-being of those who make their living on the sea,” the three lawmakers wrote. “A reduction in annual catch limits this large, coupled with dramatic changes in the quantity and location of fish stocks, would be yet another blow to Connecticut’s coastal economy.”

The lawmakers said that while they support efforts to maintain healthy fisheries and discourage overfishing, “the existing quota system has failed to keep up with a changing ocean.”

“The byzantine and outdated allocation system currently in place has rendered fishermen in Connecticut today unable to catch economically sustainable quantities of fish off their own shores,” the lawmakers said. “Connecticut fishermen remain on their docks while boats from states like Virginia and North Carolina freely fish in waters a few miles off our coast. As a result, the reductions proposed by this rule would only exacerbate this already dire and unfair situation.”

They asked the commerce secretary to prevent implementation of the new rules “until a modern and equitable quota allocation process ... can be established.”

In response to the letter, Jennifer Goebel, spokeswoman for the Greater Atlantic Fisheries Office of the marine fisheries service, said the quota reduction is based on research findings.

“We understand the great concern that people have about the recent reductions,” she said. “The status of summer flounder is updated every year using the latest available information from fishery and research survey catches.”

She added that the agency would continue to work with regional fisheries panels to “provide scientific advice to support management.”

She added that the reductions are based on updated assessments of the populations of fluke and sea bass, and represents the “best available scientific information.”

“The catch reductions we implemented are necessary to end overfishing and ensure the stock does not become overfished, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,” she said.

In June or July, she added, an update will be done of the fish stock assessments. Any changes to quotas recommended after that assessment would be taken up by fisheries regulators in August, and implemented after that, she said.

But for Gary Yerman, owner of New London Seafood Distributors, that would mean a year of big losses before the possibility of any relief. Yerman estimates the quota reduction would mean his four commercial fishing vessels would harvest about $100,000 less in fluke in 2017 compared with 2016.

“Over a three-year period, we’ve seen a 70 percent reduction in the quotas,” he said. “It’s a very unfair system. Precious fish that are coming up in our nets and we just have to throw them back dead. It’s horrible.”

j.benson@theday.com

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