Further cut in fluke quota puts Stonington fishermen, wholesaler in peril

Stonington — Imagine one of the breadwinners in a typical two-earner household is suddenly hit with a 26 percent pay cut.

Then, just as the family has adjusted to the leaner budget, the same worker’s pay gets lopped another 30 percent.

Their landlord already has reduced their rent, and the family has cut corners wherever they could, so how will they make ends meet now?

That’s basically the question Mike Gambardella, owner of Gambardella Wholesale Fish at Stonington Town Dock, is asking himself.

He faces a new 30 percent reduction in the supply of fluke, one of his main products, next year, following the 26 percent cut he’s already dealing with this year that’s cost him about $100,000 in revenue.

It also forced him to lay off one of his workers and reduce pay for himself and his remaining six workers, and negotiate reduced rent on the building he rents from the town.

“At this point,” he said Thursday, “we’re fighting a losing battle. If I lose another $100,000 next year, I can’t afford to stay in business.”

The new 30 percent cut in the supply of fluke — also called summer flounder — was announced Aug. 15 by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which regulates fluke and other species for the East Coast along with a larger body, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, but the council basically has the controlling authority.

Responding to scientific studies that show the fluke population is below target levels due to overfishing and other factors, the council reduced the quotas of fluke that commercial fishermen will be allowed to catch and keep in 2017.

For Connecticut, which already gets one of the smallest allotments of the East Coast states, that means fluke landings dropping from 249,845 pounds in 2015, to 183,000 pounds this year, to 128,356 pounds in 2017.

Fluke is one of the top four species for all commercial fishermen in Connecticut and up to half of all the catch bought and sold at Gambardella’s. So his operation and at least six of the vessels in the small Stonington fleet are being hit especially hard by the quotas, said Bob Guzzo, vice president of the Southern New England Fishermen's & Lobstermen’s Association.

Adding insult to injury, Guzzo said, he and other fishermen have been throwing away hundreds of pounds of dead fluke that come up in their nets while trying to catch squid, butterfish or scup. They aren’t allowed to keep them because they’ve already exceeded their quota, but their experience on the water is telling them these fish are abundant in New England waters and not depleted as the studies used by the Mid-Atlantic panel shows.

Climate change is bringing more warm-water species like summer flounder into New England, but the bureaucracy that regulates the fishery hasn’t caught up, he and others said.

“They’re telling us there’s no fish out there, but it’s wrong. The science is wrong,” Guzzo said. “I’m ready to bring all the fish we’re wasting in and give it away, and let them come and arrest me.”

And if the Stonington fleet loses Gambardellas, he said, it couldn’t survive, either.

“If he goes, we go,” Guzzo said.

The new quotas also will hurt New London Seafood Distributors, which operates four vessels at its facility on Smith Street.

Gary Yerman, owner of New London Seafood, said the business's main revenues come from whiting and squid, but "fluke is important to us, too."

He estimated that, with less fluke, the pay for the 40 crewmembers who work there could decline by as much as $4,000 to $5,000 next year.

"The state of Connecticut doesn't fight very well for its fishermen," Yerman said.

The new quota still needs action from the National Marine Fisheries Service before it becomes final, said Allison Ferreira, spokeswoman for the fisheries service’s regional office in Gloucester, Mass.

The service will develop a proposed rule that carries out the council's decision to reduce the quota, then invite public comment.

Ferreira said she expects the new rule will be in place by the end of the year.

Species are moving north

David Simpson, director of marine fisheries at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, believes the system that regulates fisheries essentially is broken.

Connecticut and other New England states have only minimal representation on the Mid-Atlantic panel, forcing them to live with decisions that favor fishermen from Virginia, North Carolina and other states at their expense.

Boats from these states are fishing for fluke in southern New England waters, filling their larger quotas with fish they no longer can catch closer to home.

“The quota system was set by what happened in the '80s, and it fails to recognize that so many things have changed,” Simpson said. “We need to have a voice in this process if you want us to buy into these decisions.”

Along with fluke, black sea bass and scup populations also are moving north, but the mid-Atlantic states still control quotas for those species, too, limiting the ability of Connecticut fishermen to increase the catch of those species to make up for the fluke losses.

“The resource has changed dramatically, and it’s creating winners and losers,” Simpson said. “There’s no quick fix to this. But if they would just give us enough fish to prevent all the waste, that would at least be a step in the right direction.”

In July, he and other members of the New England Fishery Management Council sent a letter to national and Mid-Atlantic fisheries regulators, asking that fluke, scup and black sea bass be jointly managed in recognition of the effects of climate change.

In his response Aug. 19, Christopher Moore, the executive director of the mid-Atlantic panel, said his group considered the request, but rejected it.

Kiley Dancy, fishery management specialist for the Mid-Atlantic council, said the decision to reduce the fluke quota was based on sound scientific information, and that federal regulations require action to prevent overfishing.

“The projections for this fishery did not look good,” she said, noting data showing low numbers of young fish. “We’ve had bad news two years in a row.”

Increasing representation from New England in the decision, Dancy said, is a “tricky issue,” but there may be ways to make the regulatory process more responsive to the changes happening in the oceans due to climate change.

“It’s debatable whether a different management system is appropriate,” she said, “but there are perhaps ways to allow for greater flexibility.”

Vital to local economy

In response to the growing pressures on the state’s commercial fishing industry, Connecticut’s congressional delegation, along with colleagues from other New England states, have been pressing for changes in federal fisheries laws they say are stacked against the Northeast.

In June, Democratic U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the parent agency for marine fishery regulatory panels, to investigate what they called inequities that put New England fishermen at a disadvantage.

Clark Reid, spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said the issues they raised are being reviewed, but no investigation has been undertaken as yet.

With the new quota announced this month, the unfairness of the current system has worsened, Courtney said, making the need for change in the regulatory system even stronger.

“We’re trapped in a management system that has been eclipsed by Mother Nature and climate change,” he said. “The system has to be more agile.”

Murphy said he and other members of the delegation would be “fighting like hell” to bring change to the system, especially when the Senate takes up reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the key law that governs how fisheries are regulated.

The House of Representatives has reauthorized the act, including some new provisions that do provide for more flexibility, Courtney said.

The town of Stonington has been trying to bring attention to the plight of its commercial fishermen, too, urging federal and state representatives work to ensure that this industry so vital to the town’s economy and character is preserved, said First Selectman Rob Simmons.

Keeping the commercial fleet viable is important for the fishermen and their families, he said, as well as for the tourism industry, including the restaurants that want to feature wild-caught local fish instead of imports.

“When I see good fish being thrown overboard, this is a waste,” Simmons said. “This is a waste that is working against the fishermen and their families and the resource. This is one of our biggest tourist attractions, and federal regulations have screwed it up.”

j.benson@theday.com

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