More fluke, less sea bass allowed to CT fishermen under 2018 quotas

The Jenna Lynn II, a commercial fishing vessel, is seen docked at the Stonington Town Dock on Aug. 24, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)
The Jenna Lynn II, a commercial fishing vessel, is seen docked at the Stonington Town Dock on Aug. 24, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)

East Coast fishermen will be allowed to catch more summer flounder and not as much sea bass as last year, under new quotas proposed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

But Stonington fishermen say the effects of the changing quotas will be nominal, and they will continue to advocate for an overhaul of the quota system, which they say has been unfair for decades.

The new quotas for 2018 affect the total catch fishermen on the eastern seaboard are allowed to bring in, and Connecticut's quotas represent a percentage of that total: the total allowance for summer flounder, also known as fluke, in 2018 will be 6.63 million, up 14.63 percent from 2017.

Accordingly, the amount of summer flounder that can be caught by Connecticut fishermen will go up by 14.63 percent, up to a proposed 149,644 pounds allowed statewide in 2018 from 127,751 in 2017.

The slight increase for 2018 is easier to swallow than the last two years of decreases in the summer flounder quotas, said Mike Gambardella, the owner of Gambardella Wholesale Fish at the Stonington Town Dock.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council regulates fluke and other species for the East Coast, along with a larger body, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Responding to scientific studies that show the fluke population is below target levels due to overfishing and other factors, the council reduced the quotas of fluke that commercial fishermen were allowed to catch and keep in 2017.

Connecticut fishermen have argued for years that fluke and sea bass quotas unfairly favor fishermen in mid-Atlantic states over New England fishermen. But the higher fluke quotas for 2018 will barely register, Gambardella said.

"It's better than getting another decrease, don't get me wrong," he said. "But that 14 percent makes no difference."

The higher summer flounder quotas are accompanied by a drop in the amount of sea bass Connecticut fishermen will be allowed to catch in 2018, as well as a drop in the numbers for bluefish. Any extra revenue fishermen will see from the additional fluke catch won't even cover higher gas prices for their boats, they say.

The cuts in the fluke quotas totaled almost 60 percent over the last two years, costing Gambardella's business hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, and he predicted that those restrictions could put him out of business if they aren't reversed.

Mark Alexander, the associate director of the fisheries division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said Thursday that he agrees the quota system doesn't benefit Connecticut fisheries.

"It is kind of a sore point, especially among our fishermen in Connecticut," Alexander said.

Connecticut already gets one of the smallest fluke allotments of the East Coast states and Bob Guzzo, the vice president of the Southern New England Fishermen's & Lobstermen's Association, said he and other fishermen aren't allowed to keep hundreds of pounds of fluke that come up in their nets because they've already exceeded their quota, so they end up throwing away dead fish back into the ocean.

Sea bass also are much more plentiful in the Atlantic Ocean off New England than the quotas allow fishermen there to catch, Guzzo said.

"We got fish up here so thick, we can't get away from them," he said. "We throw over a lot of fish — it's stupidity."

Guzzo said he advocates eliminating the state-specific quotas altogether. He was one of the Stonington fishermen to appeal directly to President Donald Trump to rescind the catch restrictions by printing bumper stickers featuring a picture of Trump giving a thumbs-up next to a fishing boat with the slogan "Make Commercial Fishing Great Again."

Alexander said the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council — which doesn't include any Connecticut representation — will be considering a measure this year to adjust the fluke quotas, which he said could lead to adjustments for other fish species.

"It's moving along, and hopefully something will come of it that will improve the situation for Connecticut," he said.

But Gambardella thinks such a change is unlikely.

"It ain't going to happen," he said. "I hate to say it, but the whole thing is broken. It's sad because the public could be eating affordable, healthy fish again."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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