Somers introduces bill to help Stonington fishermen

Stonington — State Sen. Heather Somers, R-18th District, has introduced a bill that she said Sunday would help Stonington fishermen stay afloat amid the sea of federal and state regulations that are hurting their businesses.

The bill is scheduled to have a public hearing before the legislature's Environment Committee on Friday. It would let Connecticut enter into agreements with bordering states to allow commercial fishermen from Connecticut to legally carry fish earmarked for one state into another state's port without penalty — making the schedules and lives of fishermen economically and logistically easier.

Due to strict federal and state environmental laws governing catch quotas and landing rules, Connecticut commercial fishermen are not allowed to make catches designated for separate states at the same time, even if those catches come from federal waters and even if fishermen are licensed to sell in those states. A flounder catch made for Connecticut, for example, cannot be made at the same time as a flounder catch for Rhode Island because the initial catch has to be first offloaded to the required state.

Because catches must be made separately, Somers said, the laws force fishermen to make multiple trips into federal waters each week — often 60 to 70 miles offshore, or approximately nine hours, to make the individual catches.

Besides presenting an inconvenience to fishermen, those trips also hinge on weather conditions, as well as other safety factors, she said. Storms can cancel fishing trips, and fishermen may risk working through storms to comply with regulations while trying to remain profitable.

Should her bill pass, Somers said, those issues would be eliminated as fishermen would be allowed to make and distribute multiple catches on a single trip. Fishermen would save time, money and fuel and would face fewer safety risks due to the decreased number of trips.

“This is a historic industry here in Connecticut and the last fleet in the state is in Stonington. If we can offer any little relief for them without changing the dynamic of the quotas, then that’s what we need to do,” Somers said.

“The fishermen are trying to survive,” she continued. “They are already under siege by these quotas. I don’t want to see the last commercial fishing fleet in Connecticut go out of business. So I’m trying to streamline things for them so it’s safer and more economical.”

Somers said she modeled her bill on similar legislation in Virginia and North Carolina. Somers also said she has been talking with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, as well as fishermen from the state about making the same change. She said officials there are on board with her proposal, and that language in the bill, should it pass, would allow Connecticut to create similar agreements with New York and Massachusetts.

Stonington fisherman Aaron Williams, captain of the Tradition, said Sunday that Somers’ bill would significantly help his commercial fishing business. At age 39, Williams said, he has been running his boat for nearly two decades. But as laws have become stricter, it's become more difficult to stay in business. 

“This used to be a very good industry and now it’s turned into more of a head game,” Williams said,  explaining the minutiae of rules and regulations dictating his business. “It’s, ‘Can we be over in this area? Can we have this net on?’ If we are in an area where we aren’t supposed to be, we face $1,000  fines. This bill would give us one less thing to worry about.”

Having fishing permits from multiple states along the East Coast, Williams said, he has been able to benefit from Virginia and New Jersey's fishing laws, which allow commercial fisherman to make multiple catches in federal waters.

“We caught all the fish in one area, unloaded one catch in Virginia and then steamed up shore to New Jersey to unload there. If those rules weren’t in place, it wouldn’t have been economical for us,” Williams said. “We average, on my boat, 9 gallons an hour of fuel. That’s $27 an hour and when you start totaling how many hours we are driving, it adds up."

Somers said in a best-case scenario, her bill could go into effect as early as July. Should it not be signed by the governor, she said, bringing up the issue at a legislative level will, at the very least, put pressure on the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to address the issue.

"Putting bills forward helps prioritize needs within a department. Either way, if we can get this done without legislation, that's great too. I just want to make sure we can provide some relief for our fishermen," Somers said. "This is a priority for me. This is near and dear to my heart, and I'm hoping we can get this to move through."

m.biekert@theday.com

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