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Stonington fishermen fight for their livelihoods: A look at the fleet's past, present and tenuous future

Stonington — At 3:20 a.m. Wednesday, the fishing boat Tradition, its deck awash in flood lights, eased out of the south pier of the Town Dock and headed out into Stonington Harbor. A few minutes later, the Jenna Lynn II followed, gliding through the placid water on the way to its fishing grounds.

The two boats would return Wednesday afternoon to unload their catches on the dock. 

This scene has taken place here for more than 250 years as fishermen and lobstermen from the Town Dock and other borough piers have left home in search of fish, lobster and scallops in waters as close as Block Island and Long Island sounds and as far away as Georges Bank and Hudson Canyon. 

While they have weathered storms, the loss of 41 fleet members at sea, declining catches and restrictions on how much fish they can land, the aging group of mostly men who make up the Town Dock Fleet now face a set of new challenges that threatens their future and that of the state's last surviving commercial fleet. 

These include the difficulty of luring young people into a grueling but potentially lucrative occupation and the leasing of vast areas of their fishing grounds to offshore wind energy companies that plan to erect hundreds of massive turbines.   

"A lot of these men have sacrificed a lot to keep Stonington a viable fishing community," said Joe Gilbert, who owns four large scallop and fishing boats at the dock. 

To a man, they say the general public does not have a good understanding of or appreciation for what they do.   

Why they do it

Many of the fishermen, both past and present, began fishing as children, going on trips with family members. They always knew fishing would be their career, and most started fresh out of high school. Some dabbled in other jobs but always came back to fishing.

Gilbert is among the many fishermen who say the great sense of independence is what attracted them to fishing. They also like that they don't have a boss looking over their shoulder every day.  

"I have the ability to win or lose every day, but it's me who decides that," Gilbert said.  

Retired fisherman Joe Rendeiro pointed out the fringe benefit of being out on the ocean every day. "The weather can be a bitch, or it can be beautiful, but no one sees more sunsets and sunrises than a fisherman," he said.

Dan Malone, captain of the Susan C., said he looks at the ocean as a resource. "Our job is to provide that resource to people who can't go out and get it themselves," he said.

Depending on a host of factors, ranging from their knowledge of the ocean and the impact of regulations to pure luck, the job can be lucrative for owners, captains and crew.   

"If you're good, or on the right boat, you can make some good money," lobsterman Geal Roderick said.

And how much is that?

Aaron Williams, captain of the fishing boat Tradition, said a new crew member who makes every boat trip can earn as little as $40,000 such as in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hurt fish prices, to more than $100,000 in a good year. 

Williams said a boat like his costs $500,000 to purchase, plus another $400,000 to acquire the needed permits. Then there's the cost of ice, fuel, bait, maintenance, equipment, insurance and mortgages. 

What they earn depends on demand and what dealers decide to pay them. 

The fishermen are quick to stress that they are in favor of conservation and catch limits, as they know that protecting fish stocks will keep them in business. Many work closely with state and federal regulators and attend countless meetings to offer their input on regulations. 

"Fishermen are all conservationists because it's in our interest to conserve the resource," Malone said. 

The fleet's past 

The Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen's Association, which represents the Town Dock fleet, was established in 1931. But fishing was taking place here long before then.

Many of those who initially worked on the boats began to arrive from Portugal, specifically the Azores, in the mid-19th century. Others were born here to immigrant parents. Names such as Roderick, Maderia, Medeiros, Rezendes, Debragga and others were synonymous with the fleet. 

"We've always got along pretty well here. Sometimes people get excited, but they calm down and get along and are willing to help each other out," retired fisherman Alan Chaplaski said about the fleet members. 

In the late 1940s and '50s, there were as many 60 draggers in the fleet and many lobster boats. Retired fishermen recall them tied up side to side, and having to position themselves based on who was leaving first the next morning. Stonington Borough was a working fishing village with shops that catered to the fleet's needs, compared to the galleries and restaurants of today. The homes were inhabited by families who fished or worked in factories such as the American Velvet Mill, and their many children roamed the streets when not attending the borough school. Much of social life and tradition centered around the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society, which remains.

But today, almost all of those families are gone and their homes have been transformed into expensive second homes for wealthy out-of-towners.    

The annual Blessing of the Fleet endures, though it has been downsized. The 68th edition takes place this Sunday, with a Catholic Mass at St. Mary Church followed by a ceremony at the Town Dock to remember the fishermen lost at sea and pray for the safety and success of working fishermen.

The quotas rebound 

Today, the fleet has 10 fishing and scallop boats and eight lobster boats. Fishing boats from other ports also use the dock at times.

As populations of cod, haddock, flounder and other popular groundfish declined in the 1980s and '90s, the federal government implemented quotas and other restrictions to rebuild fish stocks. The quotas significantly reduced the number of days boats could fish, forcing many fishermen to sell or scrap their boats, sell their permits and get out of the business.

Many fishermen questioned the methods being used by fisheries scientists, saying what they were seeing on the water did not reflect the dire situation cited by regulators. They said some of the rules made no sense, as they were forced to throw back dead fish that got caught in their nets because quotas were exhausted or they were using a different size net.    

And then there is the monitoring, as fisheries officials track boats with transponders and require captains to take observers with them on some trips.  

"There's no other industry in the country where you have to call the government when you open your doors for business each day and when you close the doors at the end of the day," Rendeiro said.

"It's like having an ankle bracelet on," Malone added. "NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) looks at us like a bunch of lying dirtbag criminals and drug addicts, but most of the fishermen I know are family people who have their shit together. We have a lot invested in this business."

In fact, fishermen in the fleet are well versed when it comes to discussing ocean and fisheries science, economics, business and government.

In recent years, studies have shown fish stocks rebounding and quotas have been increased. For instance, the quota of fluke that can be landed in Connecticut this year was increased from 260,000 pounds to 579,000 pounds.

"I'd like to think the sacrifices we made over the years are paying off," Williams said. "They're giving us a little more of this and a little more of that. Just 100 pounds more sometimes makes a good day."              

While catches were good last year, prices were very low due to lack of demand, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed restaurants and postponed parties and family gatherings. For example, fluke typically brings fishermen $5 a pound but was earning them 50 cents a pound last year. This year, prices have rebounded.  

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, lobster catches plummeted. Various factors were cited, such as lower oxygen content in the waters of Long Island Sound, warming water, pesticides to control mosquitoes, runoff from lawn fertilizer and discharge from the many sewage treatment plants that dot the Connecticut shoreline.

Lobsterman Roderick says the 350 people across Connecticut who were lobstering 20 years ago has decreased to 50 active lobstermen, reducing pressure on the stock and improving catches.

Lobstermen today face a range of new challenges, such as lobster grounds being closed for three months each year, an increase in the size of lobsters that can be kept, larger vent holes in traps that allow lobsters to escape, as well as difficulty in obtaining and transferring licenses. 

"We're waiting to see what the next regulation is and what impact it will have," lobsterman Matt Maderia said.

Gilbert praised the National Marine Fisheries Service for identifying key habitats and management strategies that have helped fish stocks rebound after three decades of increased restrictions.  

"But just when we get off the ropes, here comes offshore wind," he said. "Now the whole thing is in jeopardy again." 

Challenges ahead 

To a man, Town Dock fishermen say wind farms are not environmentally friendly. They are perplexed as to why environmentalists and government officials support the projects while discounting the numerous concerns of fishermen. 

"We're racing forward with this project with no science," Gilbert said. "The (scale of this) has never been done anywhere else on earth. We're not against green energy. Just don't put it in our fishing grounds."

Their concerns about the nearly 900-feet-tall turbines that will be drilled into the ocean bottom begin with the placement in areas they fish and transit. They say the turbines are too close together to allow them to navigate without damaging their nets and vessels.  

They say the massive spinning blades, which are more than 700 feet in diameter, create "radar scatter" and fog that can hide the presence of nearby vessels, disturb the water column and create vibration and noise that will harm marine life. They are concerned about the impact of the electromagnetic fields generated by transmission cables.

"The wind thing came out of nowhere. We're just getting steamrolled, and there's nothing we can do about it," Malone said. "And they will never be blamed for the demise of our business."   

One fisherman showed a cellphone picture he said he took of the new wind turbines off Block Island. It shows a brown liquid, which the fishermen say is a lubricant, leaking down the pole and into the water. 

"If you're a fisherman and you say you are for the windmills, then you're not a fisherman. You're in it for the money," Roderick said.

Offshore wind companies are offering fishermen millions of dollars in compensation payments and survey work. 

In the pilot house of the Tradition, Williams points out numerous red lines on a computer screen that show the routes he fishes go right through the wind farm leasing areas.

"My family has fished these waters for 100 years. If I knew we could have leased the bottom (like the wind companies), we would lease it," he said.

Fishermen say going to meetings with wind farm officials is almost a waste of time.   

"You go to these meetings and these guys are wearing Rolexes and alligator shoes and they say, 'We hear what you're saying. We're here for you.' But Ørsted and Eversource are paying them to be there," Williams said.

Some fishermen in other ports have indicated they will take payments and assist the wind companies, but Town Dock fishermen appear united in not doing so.

"We will not take handouts from these companies," Williams said. "We just want to fish."  

And then there's the shortage of crewmen.

"We make a good living, but no one wants to work. It was difficult before COVID, but now it's worse," Williams said.

Hiring and crew pay shares used to be based on experience, he said. "But now if they show up, have a reliable car, have a good attitude and don't have a serious substance abuse problem, you take them."

"Finding people who want to work is tough," Roderick added. "Everyone wants to just sit in a cubicle now."

Some captains say a new deckhand will show up for a trip or two and then never be seen again. That leaves older crew members to do a physically demanding job. 

Will the fleet survive?

Veteran lobsterman Mike Grimshaw, the president of the fishermen's association, said the infrastructure at the Town Dock is in good shape after investments in recent years to upgrade equipment such as the ice machine, fuel tanks and other items.   

He said the future is brighter for draggers and scallop boats that have all the permits they need, compared to lobster boats. He added that today, most lobstermen need a second job to support their families.   

Lobsterman Josiah Dodge says fishing offers a huge economic and tourist opportunity for coastal communities.

He said a Cornell University study found that every $1 worth of fish generates $3 in economic impact for the local economy. Other studies have shown an even greater impact.

"Towns need to stand behind the people who feed their communities," Dodge said, adding government officials must assist fishermen with reworking regulations and promoting the industry.

While consumers favor eating species such as cod and flounder, he said, there is an opportunity to create consumer demand for tasty but less popular species such as sea robin, dogfish, sea bream and scup. "There's so many other fish out there that are edible."

With a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, Malone said he would love to say to them someday, "'Here's an up and running fishing business if you want it.' But I don't know if there will be anything left for them. I'm afraid to get them interested and leave them disappointed."

Ann Rita, the longtime bookkeeper for the fishermen's association, though, is more upbeat about the fishermen's future.

"The way these guys are, they just love the job," she said. "They'll keep it going."

 j.wojtas@theday.com   

Stonington Blessing of the Fleet activities

Stonington — The 68th annual Blessing of the Fleet will begin Saturday with a family-friendly party from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society on Main Street. Food and ice cream will be for sale and there will be music.

On Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the traditional Fishermen's Mass will be held at St. Mary Church in the borough. The Mass is offered in memory of the 41 members of the fleet who have died at sea and to pray for the safety and success of current fishermen. That will be followed by a ceremony at the Town Dock in which Bishop of Norwich Michael Cote will bless the boats in the fleet. The St. Edmund's Pipes and Drums will play at the ceremony. The Roann, a restored wooden eastern-rig dragger formerly owned by the local Williams family and now part of the collection at Mystic Seaport Museum, also will be on hand for the ceremony. 

Mike Crowley, a member of the committee that organizes the event each year, has announced that next year's blessing, on July 31, 2022, will feature the return of the popular parade and procession that had been held in the past. The committee has been raising funds for their return.

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