Regulations may force longtime Stonington fish wholesaler to close

Mike Gambardella talks with fishermen upon his arrival at town dock in Stonington Friday, April 29, 2016.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Mike Gambardella talks with fishermen upon his arrival at town dock in Stonington Friday, April 29, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Stonington — For more than 20 years, Mike Gambardella has run his family’s century-old wholesale fish business at the Town Dock.

This year, though, may be his last.

Gambardella said that two decades of increasingly strict limits on summer flounder and other species that fishermen can land each year has caused him to lose $100,000 over the past three years, most of it this year.

“I’m really at the point of closing. There’s not enough fish coming through the door to make it work,” he said last week. “I don’t want to leave here. I love being here. But I’m losing too much money.”

Frustrated, he and fishermen have met in recent weeks with both U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, both of whom came to the dock as they have in past years and pledged to try to change federal fisheries laws to assist the state’s last commercial fleet.

Both Blumenthal and Courtney say they are building a coalition of Northeast legislators and governors to put pressure on federal officials to change the quota system.

“We’re giving this a full-court press,” Blumenthal said. “This industry is so important, not only economically, but as a way of life and culture."

“What’s scary is these guys are very fragile financially. The timing of this is everything,” Courtney added about the need to quickly come up with a solution.

Gambardella said he also has reached out to national media outlets to bring attention to the problem.

He even emailed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump because most of the fish consumed in the United States comes from overseas, and Trump has pledged to crack down on trade agreements that put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage.

For more than two decades, fishermen here have argued that while federal officials continue to place strict catch limits on the amount of summer flounder and other species in an effort to rebuild depleted stocks, the fish have rebounded so strongly that they can’t help but catch large numbers of them even when targeting other species.

In addition, they say warming seas have pushed more and more summer flounder, also known as fluke, into New England waters.

They say the limits force them to throw back large numbers of fluke that are often dead.

This comes as the country imports most of the fish it consumes.

In addition, Connecticut and other New England states do not have representation on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which oversees summer flounder and other species and decides how much fish can be landed in each state.

They say this has resulted in a system in which a boat from North Carolina, which receives an allocation of 2.2 million pounds, may be able to land thousands of pounds of summer flounder as it fishes side-by-side with a Connecticut boat in federal waters.

The Connecticut boat, though, only may be able to land a few hundred pounds or less.

This year, Connecticut fishermen can land 183,366 pounds of fluke, down from 249,000 pounds in 2015. North Carolina had a 3-million-pound allocation in 2015.

Courtney is proposing that the stocks of summer flounder be jointly managed by the Mid-Atlantic and New England Council and/or New England representatives be appointed to the Mid-Altantic Council.

Gambardella, who also has an outlet in East Haven, said at one time he employed a dozen full-time workers in Stonington, but he’s had to cut back to three workers and two part-timers.

Recently he said he went four weeks without a boat bringing fish to him.

The number of boats here have dropped to just a handful and if they decide not to go out because of a small quota, they do not bring in other species, as well.

Blumenthal said the fishermen are in economic peril because of a broken system.

He said the limits should be updated to reflect “exiting fish populations and not something in the past” as well as the northern migration of fluke and other species.

“The quotas can be made realistic without impinging on environmental or conservation goals,” he said.

Blumenthal has been working to help the fishermen with this issue dating back 20 years, when he was state attorney general.

“This issue has been deeply troubling because of the jobs that are involved and the apparent failure of a government system to accurately reflect and represent those interests,” he said, stressing that he also is sympathetic to the environmental and conservation concerns involved in the issue.

“The jobs and economic interests can be fully compatible with the laudable goal of preserving the fish population,” he said.

Both Blumenthal and Courtney said the quota system could be updated through proposed changes in the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, which is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, Gambardella said he has been working with the Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen’s Association, which oversees the Stonington dock, in an effort to stay in business.

“I should be shutting down. I’m trying to stretch it to the end of the year, but I’m not sure I can even do that,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

George McCagg assembles boxes for shipping fish from Gambardella Wholesale Fish at town dock in Stonington Friday, April 29, 2016.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
George McCagg assembles boxes for shipping fish from Gambardella Wholesale Fish at town dock in Stonington Friday, April 29, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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