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Fish Tales: 'Retired' Stonington fishing captains stay close to the water

Stonington — On separate days last month, as they sat next to the Town Dock memorial that honors the 41 members of the fishing fleet who have died at sea, fishermen Joe Rendeiro, Alan Chaplaski and Bob Guzzo discussed their long careers, the future of the industry and their close calls at sea.

Together, the three men have well over 150 years of commercial fishing experience. Rendeiro and Chaplaski are retired, while Guzzo owns the Jenna Lynn II, which is run by a captain and one crew member.

"I still come down here every day. I do the rounds and talk to all the guys," Rendeiro said.

The outspoken Rendeiro

Like most fishermen here, Rendeiro, now 87, grew up in the borough. He quit high school as a sophomore in 1950 to go fishing. Two years later, he enlisted in the Navy and served four years, including an assignment aboard the battleship USS New Jersey. He then returned to lobstering and fishing.

In 1962, he and his crew saved seven fishermen from a burning boat off Martha's Vineyard, an event that was chronicled on the front pages of the Boston newspapers. In 1980, he and his brother Gino bought two boats, the Quiambaug Queen and the Aggressor, and he fished until 2000.

"Back then there was money in it. It was a good way to make a living," Rendeiro said about the allure of the job. "No one watches over your shoulder. Everything you get out of it comes from what you put into it. It's hard work."

He typically made two-day or three-day trips, but never worked on Sunday.

Rendeiro has long been one of the most vocal members of the fleet when it comes to protesting government regulations limiting catches, even getting arrested for protesting quotas that forced him to throw back dead fish.

He said the regulations have made it difficult for fishermen to support their families and to attract new people to the job. 

"If they just gave guys a little more fish to catch, fishing would look good," he said. 

The reserved Chaplaski  

Alan Chaplaski, 71, is unlike many older Town Dock fishermen in two respects: He didn't grow up in the borough — he's from Fishers Island — and he has earned college degrees in fisheries and engineering. He quotes the poet Robert Frost and is a student of maritime history.

Growing up on the water, he said he always knew he wanted to do something with the sea and he got his first small lobster boat when he was 16. Eyesight problems derailed his plan to attend one of the merchant marine academies. After college he moved on to a series of larger boats, fishing out of the Town Dock and Greenport, N.Y. In 1991 he bought the Neptune, which he described as a "fixer-upper that he never finished fixing up," and ran it out of the Town Dock until he retired in 2018. 

Chaplaski also was one of the Town Dock fishermen who began fishing for deepwater red shrimp, which provided an additional source of income in the 1990s when dramatically decreased quotas on groundfish and flounder began to impact the fleet. But catching them required special nets and a lot of extra work, he said.

"The better I got (at fishing) and the more I worked, the more they tightened the restrictions," he said.  

Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter were the only days he took off, and when he was not fishing, he was at the dock working on the boat.

"I never married or had children," he said. "I was married to the boat, and the crew members were my kids."

As a fisherman, Chaplaski said he needed to be "very self-sufficient out there" in order to be successful. This means being able to fix just about any mechanical problems that came up. 

Today, he can still be found at the dock doing maintenance on boats or the dock.

"I'm not totally out of the loop," he said.

Guzzo: 'Until they put me in the ground' 

Bob Guzzo, 64, grew up in Old Saybrook and first went lobstering with his uncle when he was 13. Although his father wanted him to go to college, Guzzo told him no and began driving trucks to deliver seafood. Those deliveries brought him to the Town Dock. He caught conch out of New Haven, and worked on boats in New Bedford and Stonington beginning in 1978. He's been here since. He bought his first boat, the 90-foot Jenna Lynn, which he named after his niece, in 1989. He fished it until 2006, when he sold it and bought a smaller boat because of uncertainty over quotas and regulations. He now has a captain and mate running the Jenna Lynn II, but he still goes out on a small boat for lobster and conch.  

For Guzzo, the job of a fisherman is simple.

"If you work hard, you get rewarded," he said. "A lot of us do it for the fun of it. It's not just a job, it's a way of life. It's about the challenge of fishing and catching the biggest and most fish."

Looking out at the entrance to the harbor on a sparkling early summer day, he added, "What could be a better place to be than getting out there on a day like this?"

Guzzo said a lot has changed at the Town Dock since he began fishing here, a time when the fleet was twice the size it is now.

He recalled the daily banter of fishermen "busting everyone's balls" on the radio, and laughed about the many practical jokes they would pull on each other, such as the time when they welded the Rendeiros' boats together and filled a fisherman's car with foam packing peanuts.

"A big gang used to come down in the morning and see what was going on. Now people only come down when they have to work, or they email each other," he said. "It's all changed. Now everyone is so serious."  

Guzzo, like Rendeiro, has been an outspoken critic of government regulations. He, too, has been arrested for protesting quotas. Now, he said it is the leasing of offshore fishing grounds to wind power companies and the difficulty of attracting young people to the job that pose challenges for the fleet.

"Hopefully it will continue," he said. "We've invested a lot here."

Asked how long he will fish, Guzzo said, "Until I can't walk anymore. Or until they put me in the ground."

 j.wojtas@theday.com

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