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Lobster fishermen taking enforced break

Seconds after Richard Sawyer Jr. steered his lobster boat Just In Time to his dock at Jupiter Point in Groton Thursday, his son and grandson began carrying armloads of empty wire traps onto shore.

"Just start stacking them four or five high over there," said Sawyer, directing his two-man crew, clad in identical orange bib pants to match their nearly identical names - Richard Sawyer III and Richard Sawyer IV.

That afternoon, they would empty their boat's hold of 140 of the traps the family set this year in the part of Long Island Sound known as The Race, netting just 110 legal-sized lobsters from the haul, which they'll sell to wholesalers for $3.50 to $4.75 per pound.

"What we catch now in a week I used to catch in a day," said the eldest Sawyer, 71, who's been a lobsterman since the 1960s. "The last really big year was 1999, and since 2005 it's really been going down."

All last week, the Sawyers worked to get all 700 of the traps they set this season pulled up and back on shore for the closure of the commercial lobster season, which takes effect today. Last year for the first time, the state closed the Long Island Sound lobster fishery from Sept. 8 to Nov. 28 in response to persistent declines in the lobster population. As the start of the second seasonal closure approached, the state's few remaining lobstermen said they're once again left taking a hit from what they characterize as a futile attempt to restore the dwindling numbers of the popular crustacean.

"It (the closure) hasn't done anything but stop us from fishing," Sawyer said.

He, like other lobstermen, say reducing the lobster catch won't solve the problem. The remaining lobsters, they say, are now likely to be eaten by the flourishing populations of scup and black sea bass rather than ending up in traps, and the real cause that is not being adequately addressed is the water quality in the estuary. The real culprits, they contend, are pollution from sewage treatment plants, pesticide residues and the effects of climate change, which is causing water temperatures in the Sound to become too warm for lobster metabolisms.

"The state of Connecticut as well as the federal people are not good stewards," Sawyer said.

During the peak years, the Sawyers would set more than 1,000 traps, bringing in some of the largest hauls in the eastern Sound, where the lobster fishery remained viable for longer than in the central or western Sound. But now, the elder Sawyer said, they barely turn a profit after paying for fuel and bait. What will they do when the closure ends?

"I don't know whether we'll fish again next year," he said. He even suggested that the commercial lobster fishery in the Sound should be closed completely rather than for just part of the year. That way, he said, he and the other remaining lobstermen might become eligible for some financial assistance. His son, who plans to find another job during the closure months, agreed with his father that the regulators' actions have been inadequate.

"Even if they listened to us, the horse has already left the barn," said Richard Sawyer III.

David Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the closure was the right decision given that there's been no sign of recovery in the lobster population. Twice-annual surveys of marine life conducted by DEEP showed a peak in the lobster population in the late 1990s, when they accounted for about 20 percent of the catch netted aboard DEEP's research trawler. In the most recent data, from 2013, they account for less than 1 percent. He agrees that a complex combination of factors including warming water is at fault but remains convinced that the closure was an appropriate response.

"Absolutely, it (the closure) was the healthiest thing to do for the industry as well as the resource," Simpson said. "The resource could use even more conservation. But the closure has helped the fishermen to look to other ways to make money."

He noted that the number of commercial lobster licenses issued in 2013 was 154, of which only about 90 recipients were actually fishing. That's down from about 550 licensed commercial lobstermen in 1996.

Most of the state's lobster catch, he said, has historically been landed by a few full-timers, with the rest setting pots as a part-time occupation. At its peak in 1998, 3.7 million pounds of lobsters were landed by the state's commercial lobstermen. That compares to the 2013 catch of under 120,000 pounds.

Simpson said that last year, the overall catch was down by about 100,000 pounds compared to the previous year. Only about 10 percent of that, he estimated, was because of the 12-week closure. The rest, he said, happened because "some fishermen, once they hauled their gear out, chose to leave it out."

Some of the lobstermen turned to catching conch, also called whelk, which can be caught in the same gear as lobsters. But due to overfishing, that fishery is also in decline, Simpson said, so he doesn't expect that will be the case this year.

Nicholas Crismale of Branford, president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen's Association, said there are only about 10 active members of his group remaining. After making his living lobstering for 40 years, he quit three years ago and now harvests clams instead.

"The lobster industry in Long Island Sound is basically gone," he said, adding that he believes poor water quality is the main culprit.

Another lobsterman, Bart Mansi of Guilford, said he fished for conch during the closure last year but isn't planning on doing that again.

"The conch catch has been down," he said. "This year we put out 800 lobster traps in the water, but the fishing was horrible. I don't know what we're going to do."

Joe Healy of Niantic was a part-time lobsterman after he retired from the law enforcement division of DEEP, but he gave that up a year ago.

"I quit when the closure started," he said. "I didn't do anything this year because there are no lobsters."
Twitter: @BensonJudy


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