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Fish Tales: Fishing fleet lives a productive but unstable existence in New London

New London — It's early on a humid Thursday morning and the pier that juts out from the Fort Trumbull peninsula is alive with activity.

The 96-foot trawler Mystic Way is back home from a four-day stint at sea and its crew is unloading a 35,000-pound haul, using a crane to swing to shore containers overflowing with whiting and a variety of other fish species.

The crew members join with dock workers to move the fish, shovel ice and pack the fish into hundreds of wax-coated boxes. A teen on a forklift hauls the pallets of boxes into an awaiting refrigerated truck headed to a fish market in New York.

Workers are tired and sweating but focused on moving the fish out of the summer heat before too much of the ice melts.

Overseeing the operations at Fisherman’s Landing is Gary Yerman, 71, owner and president of New London Seafood Distributors and one of the two men credited with bringing this modern-day fishing fleet to New London. The boats using the two piers bring in 4 to 5 million pounds of fish each year, one of the biggest in the state by volume.

“Most people don’t realize we have a fishing fleet here in New London,” Yerman said.

He and longtime former business partner William Saunders started fishing together in 1980 in Clinton. They evolved and grew in the subsequent years, landing in New London in earnest in 1989.

Yerman said his operation at the time was not a good fit with Stonington’s fleet, which was fishing for different species in different areas and with different business models.

Yerman and Saunders were partners in three nearly 100-foot trawlers: The Mystic Way, Lady Lynn and Provider. They sold their own fish to the markets in places like New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, selling “anything that swims and can be eaten.” That includes whiting, skate, squid, lobster, porgy, butter fish, black fish, blue fish and more.

These days, activity at Fisherman’s Landing remains all but hidden from the general public because of its location, but eight trawlers call it home and another 8 to 10 use the pier and facilities, which includes ice machines and ice storage space. Yerman refers to his company as "freight forwarders and facilitators" of a business that has a strong heritage in the state.

It's been a productive, but somewhat unstable life in New London ever since Yerman started leasing the pier in 1989 from the Castle family, former owners of Lehigh Oil. The city later bought or took by eminent domain all of the available land in the Fort Trumbull area in the name of economic development. It left New London Seafood second-guessing its future in the Whaling City and stymied any growth.

“When the city took the property by eminent domain, it shook up our overall game plan,” Yerman said.

New London Seafood had a year-to-year, albeit cheap, lease with the city’s development arm, the New London Development Corporation and later the Renaissance City Development Association. It was never quite clear if the fishermen would be able to stay. There have been intermittent talks through the years about moving the fishing fleet elsewhere to accommodate development.

It’s the reason Yerman and his partner bought a piece of property across the river in Groton. “It was, and is, an insurance policy if and when they throw us out of Fort Trumbull,” Yerman said.

Yerman signed a five-year lease in 2018 with the RCDA, paying vastly more rent at $2,500 per month but securing some stability. The lease agreement includes possible extensions for up to 15 years and, perhaps more importantly, a written acknowledgment of the fishing fleet for would-be developers of Fort Trumbull’s Parcel 1, a plot of undeveloped land tagged for hotel development.

Likewise, the owners of the two commercial fishing outfits located further north at the state-owned State Pier facility only recently received assurances from the Connecticut Port Authority that they would be able to stay while the pier is remade to accommodate the offshore wind industry.

The State Pier facility is home to Montville-based Donna May Fisheries and Waterford-based Out of Our Shell Enterprises, who together operate four boats. They are located off the west side of the Central Vermont Railroad Pier, one of the two piers at the port.

Yerman acknowledges changing times in the industry. He no longer owns the boats coming into Fisherman’s Landing, but does have a stake in two of his former boats. In addition to staying abreast of ever-changing regulations, fishermen these days are wary of the national push for a proliferation of offshore wind farms. The hundreds of massive wind turbines are slated to be erected in and around the fishing grounds are a concern for many.

Coexisting with wind industry 

Yerman, after nearly 50 years of fishing, acknowledges he must evolve. With partners Michael Theiler and Gordon Videll, he formed a company that would allow the two industries to coexist.

The idea to start Sea Services North America came from a trip to Ireland sponsored by Danish wind giant Ørsted, the company that with its partner Eversource is remaking State Pier the larger player in the East Coast offshore wind industry.

Ørsted is working with the fishermen there, supplementing their jobs by offering work to experienced fishing boat captains as scouts and monitoring vessels. The work is not for everyone, but Yerman, fleet manager for Sea Services, said the jobs offered by the offshore wind industry allow captains and their crews time at sea that doesn’t involve grueling, sleep-deprived days.

He considers commercial fishermen a family and he has a son who is now in the business and looking for ways to ensure steady work for the future.

Yerman never plans to stray far from the water. It’s been his life and provided for his family.

“It an unusual at best way to make a living but I never intend to retire," he said. "I thoroughly enjoy everything about it.”

g.smith@theday.com

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