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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Region’s sportfishing industry braces for smaller-catch impact

    Marc Berger hauls equipment aboard his Lucky Strike charter boat on June 5, 2023, at Mago Point Marina in Waterford. Berger is concerned that new fishing regulations will affect his business, if not this year then next. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    As tufts of clouds loom overhead on June 5, 2023, boats line up at Mago Point Marina in Waterford, including the Lucky Strike fishing charter near the center. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Charter fishing captain Marc Berger chats with a fellow boater on June 5, 2023, at Mago Point Marina in Waterford, after taking a group out that morning to catch fish aboard the Lucky Strike. Berger is concerned that new fishing regulations will affect his business, if not this year then next. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Greg Dubrule, owner and captain at Blackhawk Sport Fishing, instructs a group of U.S. veterans Thursday, June 30, 2022, before a four-hour fishing trip in Niantic. Blackhawk Sport Fishing hosted the trip free of charge for more than 30 veterans in collaboration with The Fallen Outdoors organization, a group dedicated to organizing outdoor adventures for veterans. (The Day file photo)

    Waterford -- Marc Berger, who skippers the Lucky Strike charter boat out of Mago Point Marina, says new regulations imposed last month are jeopardizing the recreational fishing businesses statewide.

    What’s more, Berger said he doesn’t believe the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulations will accomplish what is intended: saving local waters from being overfished.

    If anything, he said, it might lead to more fish being killed.

    “We have to go through more fish to get to a keeper fish,” he said. “It’s gonna have a long term, unfair effect ... it’s drastic overreach.”

    Berger, president of the 40-member Connecticut Charter Boat/Party Boat Association, said the new regulations were imposed suddenly and surprisingly May 26 after the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had indicated in December that it expected rules to remain unchanged. The number of fish in certain categories have been reduced compared to last year, significantly cutting how much can be brought back by charters on each excursion.

    Speaking aboard his boat on Monday, Berger pointed particularly to new limits on striped bass, which account for about half of the interest in fishing local waters. The daily catch limit per person is still one, same as last year, but the size of the fish has to fall in a narrower 3-inch range that leads to more striped bass being caught and released, he said.

    The idea is to save the bigger, breeder fish, but he said that many caught fish die after being hooked, even if they are released properly.

    “This is really going to have a bad long-term effect on all these small businesses,” Berger said, pointing to local restaurants, convenience stores, bait and tackle shops and others affected by fishing tourism.

    Justin Davis, head of the marine fisheries division of the state DEEP, agreed that charter boat captains were blindsided by new regulations last month, and he regretted that new data resulted in the Atlantic States fisheries commission changing rules very late in the season without the usual hearings.

    But he called the new rules necessary and important to ensure the long-term health of striped bass locally.

    “I feel like we did the right thing,” Davis said in a phone interview. “It was a very tough decision.”

    Davis said fisheries experts were concerned about striped bass going back to 2018, when they were clearly in decline. So they instituted a 10-year management plan that they hoped would restock striped bass by 2029, and they seemed to be on track as of 2021.

    But Davis said a scientific assessment completed in 2022, but not available until this year, showed there had been a dramatic increase in the striped bass harvest, almost doubling in one year. The fisheries council, of which Davis is a member, in an emergency meeting decided to take corrective action to avoid another drastic reduction in the striped bass population that might shut down the fishery entirely, as happened in the 1980s, he said.

    “This regulation is very restrictive,” Davis admitted. “This is a hardship; we recognize that.”

    But Davis said many individual anglers and several fishing-related groups support the new quotas, including the American Saltwater Guides Association.

    “Striped bass are a lot better off today than they were yesterday, and while this decision probably got some folks upset in the short term, this is the best path forward for all in the long run,” Tony Friedrich, policy director for the association, said in an email to DEEP forwarded by Davis.

    Berger said he has the only sportfishing business operating out of Mago Point Marina, but the Captain John’s dock nearby has eight other boats that operate as charters or party boats, including the Sunbeam. The Mijoy no longer operates locally.

    About 75 to 80 percent of Berger’s business is repeat customers (so far, no one has canceled a reservation), and Berger has gone out every day since May 20. Most charters to The Race, his preferred fishing destination, leave at 5 a.m., and his boat capacity allows only six people at a time.

    “The Race is loaded with fish,” he said.

    While striped bass is the preferred fish of many anglers because of its size and its fight, Berger’s customers also haul in porgies, blackfish, bluefish, black sea bass, cod and a variety of other species. The number limit on keepers in these categories can range from two to 30 depending on the species, but changes to regulations haven’t drastically changed for these less sought-after fish.

    Berger is not as worried about the new regulations affecting his business this year as he is concerned about next year, after people realize the limits are significantly reducing the number and size of fish they can bring home.

    “I’m not against regulation,” Berger said, “but I think they should be fair regulations, and not based on information that’s not correct.”

    Mike Pirri, captain of the Flying Connie charter boat out of Cedar Island Marina in Clinton, said to break even he has to run 60-80 trips during a season. He feels that number will be in jeopardy next year once people experience the more restrictive regulations this season.

    “We’re not criminals; we’re just looking to take people out fishing,” Pirri said. “If I get only 60 trips next year, I’m done. I’m over.”

    Greg Dubrule, 73, who runs the 103-capacity Blackhawk party fishing boat out of Niantic and pointed out that the marine fisheries expert Davis used to work for him, questioned the data upon which the new regulations are based.

    “We don’t want to wipe the fish out,” he said. “We want to protect these species of fish, but you got to be realistic.”

    He added that some people go out for the excitement or sport of fishing, but to others it’s about catching enough fish to make it worth their while. Dubrule charges $110 per person a day, he said, with military and kid discounts much less; Berger’s charter boat costs about $900 for six passengers, including a tip for the captain.

    Connecticut is not the only state affected by the new regulations: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have also agreed to the fishing limits. New York and New Jersey have not yet accepted the regulations, but Davis said he believes New York will do so within a few days.

    Had Connecticut not agreed to adhere to the regulations, Davis said the federal government could have shut down striped bass fishing entirely in the state.

    Berger said fisheries folks jump to a lot of conclusions about overfishing based on little information. For instance, he said trawl surveys are done every year in the same spots for comparison purposes, but he doubted the numbers reflected reality because fish tend to move from year to year.

    But Davis said the trawling is done in 40 random spots every month, and fisheries regulations are based on these and other scientific methods for counting fish.

    “A lot of guys here are worried about going out of business,” Berger said. “This is not a high-dollar-living job. You don’t make a lot of money doing charters.”

    But Davis, who made a motion during the emergency meeting to exempt fishing charters from the new regulations but was voted down, said he is hopeful that if people adhere to the regulations this year and striped bass come back to acceptable levels, the rules could be eased next year. In any case, he promised next year there would be no emergency meeting and sportfishing professionals would get a hearing.

    “Any change in striped bass (regulations) creates heat and friction,” he said.

    l.howard@theday.com

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