Above the waves, Connecticut fishermen struggle to hang on

Above the waves, Connecticut fishermen struggle to hang on

As climate changes, so do fish populations, but not the rules for catching them

by Jan Ellen Spiegel

Quiet at the commercial fishing dock in Stonington. (Courtesy phoca2004)

Second of two stories. Read the first.

Stonington – Gambardella Wholesale Fish on the docks here is all but empty on an early afternoon, eerily quiet save for the rhythmic clack, clack of cardboard boxes being stapled together.

“We used to start at seven in the morning,” said Mike Gambardella, whose grandfather started the family’s original fish market more than a century ago. “And when we used to have the whiting boats coming in here, sometimes we wouldn’t get out of here ‘til two o’clock in the morning. Now if I open one day a week, I’ll be happy.”

Mike Gambardella outside his wholesale operation in Stonington. In the past, the docks would be bustling from early in the morning until after midnight. (Jan Spiegel / CTMirror.org)

The problem isn’t the fish. There are plenty of fish – but they’re the wrong fish.

Warming water and other shifting ocean conditions, probably caused by climate change and its cascading impact on the entire marine ecosystem, have pushed the longtime mainstays of Connecticut fishing, like winter flounder and most notably lobster, north to deeper and colder waters.

In their places are species that had been more common further south, also moving north in search of more hospitable conditions. But the way the fish management and quota systems work on the East Coast, fishermen in New England can’t catch many of those fish.

Instead, trawlers from North Carolina are traveling all the way to the ocean waters in Connecticut’s backyard and catching what used to be off their own coast – summer flounder, scup and the very valuable black sea bass – while Connecticut fishermen can only watch; throwback tons of fish – most of which will die; or risk a costly, difficult and long trip to where the fish they are allowed to catch in larger numbers are now.

The situation has resulted in an emotional dispute over how the U.S. fishing system operates, with Connecticut fishermen and politicians calling, if not downright begging, for immediate changes to fish allocations to save the state’s fishing industry from what many believe is its inevitable ruin. But others in the scientific and environmental communities are saying – maybe not so fast.

The fishing rules

The U.S. fishing management system is a tangle of federal, state and quasi-governmental authorities with overlapping jurisdictions and invisible boundaries for which fish have absolutely no regard.

Since the early 1940s, the quasi-governmental Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has operated with the 15 Atlantic coastal states to regulate near-shore fishing. These waters, up to three miles from shore, are designated as state waters. Long Island Sound is considered state waters, split between Connecticut and New York.

For federal waters – from three to 200 miles from shore – the overarching authority is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, first passed in 1976, last revised in 2007 and now overdue for reauthorization.

Connecticut fishing boats wind up spending more time in port as the fish the can catch move elsewhere and much of the fish they do catch must be thrown back. (CT DEEP Marine Fisheries)

It regulates fishing through a series of eight councils. The New England Fishery Management Council covers Connecticut to Maine. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council oversees New York through North Carolina. The councils create fishery management plans that include how much fish can be caught based on national standards set out in Magnuson-Stevens. As long as the management plans are legal, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries must approve them, even if they don’t agree with them.

Whether the commission or a council regulates allocations for a particular fish, and if it’s a council – which one does it – is based on where a species is most prevalent, though some fish are jointly managed between a council and the commission or two councils. Allocations are based on historic catches.

These systems are the heart of the problem as Connecticut fishermen see it.

Black sea bass, summer flounder (also known as fluke) and scup (also know as porgy) are jointly managed by the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. While there is a liaison representative from the New England Council on the Mid-Atlantic Council, he is not a voting member and has no say in changing rules for fish allocations, even if the fish are turning up in the New England Council’s area in far greater numbers – which they are.

The Mid-Atlantic Council’s own most recent performance reports, released in June, show the highest catch areas for all three species to be off southern New England and Long Island. (See the reports for black sea bass, summer flounder, and scup.)

Making matters worse for New England, the historic catches on which the allocations are based date from before those three species became prevalent further north. Right now Connecticut is allowed 1 percent of the black sea bass quota, 2.25 percent of summer flounder and 3.15 percent of scup during the summer, more in the winter.

Incensing fishermen further was an announcement by the commission on new quotas for all three in state waters along the eastern seaboard. The summer flounder quota drops 30 percent from its 2016 level next year. Scup drops 10 percent next year and another 5 percent the following year. Black sea bass holds steady.

A similar 30 percent drop in the summer flounder quota for federal waters is awaiting final approval by NOAA.

The reductions prompted a stream of vitriol and threats of civil disobedience from Connecticut fishermen, who view this newest restriction as yet another assault on their livelihood. Their invective is aimed at politicians of all stripes, cheap imported fish, a wind farm off Rhode Island and more planned for New England waters, and a proposed underwater national monument off Cape Cod. Fishermen say the latter two will make it even harder to reach the few fish they’re allowed to catch.

Dick Grachek, now 71, said he’s been fishing for summer flounder since he was a kid on Long Island’s Great South Bay. He contends the commission’s stock assessment was based on looking for summer flounder where they used to be, not where they are now.

Grachek said the fish is turning up farther north and east in Munson’s Canyon on the far side of George’s Bank. “Never been there before, ever,” he said. “I can catch all I want, as long as I spend the rest of my life at sea. I can’t land them.”

For Connecticut, the economic impact of not being able to bring in the fish that are actually out there is apparent. Data supplied by NOAA show the overall economic impact of the fishing industry (excluding oysters and clams) has dropped to its lowest point since 2008, less than $50 million in 2014 (the most recent year available). The total was nearly $73 million in 2012.

The number of jobs associated with the fishing industry also dropped to about 850 in 2014.

“We have these allocations state by state that are fixed in yesteryear,” said Dave Simpson, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s marine fisheries director, who officially represents Connecticut on both the New England Council and the fisheries commission. “How do you convince four people with a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council from North Carolina that they should acknowledge all the fish are 20 miles south of Montauk now and that Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island now should have a bigger share than them? It’s not going to happen. So in practical terms, I think there has to be a push. There has to be a federal voice that says ‘you have to address this.’”

There are actually several voices.

Trying to change the system

In May, the entire Connecticut congressional delegation and nine members of the Massachusetts delegation sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asking her to direct the Mid-Atlantic Council to work with the New England Council to create a joint management plan for black sea bass, summer flounder and scup. The goal is to increase the New England catch limit.

“It’s kind of crazy when you’ve got North Carolina boats east of Rhode Island hauling in massive amounts of summer flounder and our boats that are tied up in Connecticut and Rhode Island and Massachusetts have to throw it back because of a system that’s out of date.”

— U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney
2nd District of Connecticut

The letter argued, “New England fishermen are unfairly shortchanged when bountiful stocks managed by a Fishery Management Council outside of their region allocates local states low catch quotas.”

It also said that environmental concerns over the large quantities of fish New England fishermen had to throw back – known as by-catch – needed to be addressed. “Fishermen coming from as far away as North Carolina can legally take sometimes more than ten times that of New England vessels in the same waters,” it read.

“It’s kind of crazy when you’ve got North Carolina boats east of Rhode Island hauling in massive amounts of summer flounder and our boats that are tied up in Connecticut and Rhode Island and Massachusetts have to throw it back because of a system that’s out of date,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, whose 2nd District includes Stonington. “The letter is to address what I think is almost a crisis. It’s very grim right now. This system just is not nimble enough.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who tried but failed to overturn the fishing quotas in the 1990s when he was still Connecticut attorney general, called the system a metaphor-appropriate “shipwreck.” He charged the councils were packed with political appointees and accountable to no one.

“The system is a lose, lose, lose,” he said. “It’s a lose for the fishermen. It’s a lose for environmental preservation. And it’s a lose for our state economy.”

Blumenthal and Courtney, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also called for an investigation by the acting Inspector General of the Commerce Department on how “these outdated allocations are disadvantaging fishermen in the Northeast.”

And in July, the New England Council officially asked the regional administrator for National Marine Fisheries to allow it to jointly manage black sea bass, summer flounder and scup with the Mid-Atlantic Council.

So far, only the Commerce Department has responded with a letter that effectively said “no” to the request for joint management, noting that there already is flexibility in the system with ongoing re-evaluations.

In fact there are large and long-term efforts underway to overhaul how fish are managed – something Blumenthal said is needed, but they are years away from formulation, let alone implementation.

“I am deeply concerned, in fact alarmed, that Washington will fail to move quickly enough to preserve our fishing industry,” Blumenthal said.

New plans

Both the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils are exploring ecosystem-based approaches to fishing management. That means instead of regulating each fish, the concept would be to look at a geographic area and all the species in what’s known as a functional group.

In New England, the effort is focusing on Georges Bank. “It’s got a ways to go in terms of development,” said Andy Applegate, a senior fishery analyst with the New England Council and chair of one of the committees spearheading the effort.

One of the advantages of managing by groups, he and others said, is that the species in them change based on many factors, including standard seasonal variability as well as climate change. “But that basic functional group on Georges Bank is going to be more stable than an individual species,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily help fishermen in Long Island Sound, but eventually something like that could serve as a template to be used elsewhere.”

The Mid-Atlantic Council is taking a different approach, trying to figure out ways to incorporate ecosystem considerations into the current management system. That effort has been underway for four years and so far has produced a series of workshops and white papers, but also still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, the Northeast Regional Planning Body, a compilation of nine federal agencies, the six New England states, six tribes and the New England Council formed in 2010 to study how to develop an integrated approach for all ocean activities, in May released its draft report that called for an ecosystem-based approach to managing fish.

Sorting Whiting in New London. (CT DEEP Marine Fisheries)

“It’s not just about one species or a group of species,” said Betsy Nicholson, the federal co-lead for the planning body and NOAA’s north regional director for the office for coastal management. “It’s how they interact with that habitat. It’s how they might be impacted by the … wind farms that are going up off of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.”

And NOAA Fisheries in May released its draft Northeast Regional Action Plan that offers a multi-year strategy for using climate change science information to manage marine species from North Carolina to Maine.

But arguably a more contentious question is whether to change the council system as well. There has been discussion, formal and informal, on revising the voting structure, merging the councils, re-aligning the councils, getting rid of them or creating a new system from scratch.

All of the above and then some were discussed at a key Mid-Atlantic Council workshop in 2014. “I can tell you that we didn’t make much progress,” said Rich Seagraves, a senior scientist with the Council.

That’s not surprising to DEEP’s Simpson, who said the councils are not likely to willingly give up existing control or agree to lower catch limits. He would like to see the two councils merged, however. “I’m tired of dancing around it,” he said. “This region where species range from North Carolina to at least the Cape and beyond – it should be one council.”

Multispecies ecosystem-based management, he said, “is easier to talk about than to actually do.”

“You had it for 30 years and all you did was screw it up.”

— Bob Guzzo
Fisherman

“I think the notion of combining the councils is just unrealistic,” said Richard Robins, who was on the Mid-Atlantic Council for nine years until earlier this month, chairing it for eight of those years as well as often serving as the liaison to the New England Council. “We have very different operating histories and institutional histories. I think the approach we would find to be more appropriate would be to make incremental changes that would insure that we have adequate governance mechanisms and representation from New England.”

Fisherman Bob Guzzo was more blunt: “Start off from scratch,” with the fish management system, he said he’d tell the government. “You had it for 30 years and all you did was screw it up. It’s in a worse position now.”

Guzzo said so many small black sea bass started showing up flopping around in his conch pots two years ago that they’d splash mud in his eyes. He’d like whatever the system is to let him catch more and throw fewer back. “The seagulls and the crabs are eating them,” he said. “It’s such a wasteful way to fish.”

“Climate change has become a way by which we can stop talking about the politically charged topic of overfishing.”

— Matthew McKenzie
New England Council member and UConn history professor

But Matthew McKenzie, a member of the New England Council and a University of Connecticut history professor who specializes in marine environmental history, specifically New England fishing, threw some of the blame back on New England fishermen like Guzzo. He said more than other regions nationally they’ve been resistant to fishing management and reluctant to cut back on their catches.

“Climate change has become a way by which we can stop talking about the politically charged topic of overfishing,” he said. “Its political manifestation has been to provide a get-out-of-jail-free card, so to speak, for those industries that are facing the most pressure to deal with overfishing.”

Simpson agreed with both points. “I’m inclined to say, ‘yeah.’ New England has had a harder time in the last 30 or 40 years getting a handle on the rates of fishing and managing fishing,” he said, noting that having a fishing tradition more than three centuries old can make it harder to change. “How do we change our management, because you don’t want it to be an excuse to do nothing and overfish stocks? You want to try maintain this sustainable fishery for what it can sustain, but you have to have realistic targets.”

And that gets to the difficult balance between short-term and long-term goals and tensions between science and politics.

Short-term vs. long-term

While science doesn’t dispute that climate change is affecting marine species in multiple ways, there are many non-climate change factors to weigh. Long-term weather and climate cycles still exist, but it’s not clear how they interact with the current climate change, possibly even moderating its affects. It’s not clear whether fish are just moving or the variability of where they are is increasing. And it’s not clear whether fish are responding just to climate change or some combination that includes wider variability and management of fish stocks.

For instance, most scientists believe that summer flounder’s resurgent numbers, though not its movement, may be caused more by management than climate. And Seagraves of the Mid-Atlantic Council thinks variability is increasing, which makes him worry about industry and political efforts to increase catch limits in New England.

“I’m convinced that our oceans can support more fishing; they can be thriving even as the climate changes.”

— Joseph Gordon
Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. oceans Northeast conservation effort

“In a more variable system, you can’t just give more fish to the north, because it can change again,” he said. “This thing will play out over a decadal time scale, but within the three to five years that we live in our planning horizons there could be a lot of variability in any given year.

“The solution is going to be difficult to craft.”

Some would like to see Magnuson-Stevens overhauled as part of that solution. Others say it’s already flexible enough to handle even dramatic management changes. But uniformly fishing scientists and environmental advocates say it’s critical to take a big-picture approach to marine ecosystems with sustainability and habitat conservation as top priorities – regardless of climate change.

“The single best thing we can do for fishing, for businesses, for ecosystems is to protect our ocean fish, to focus on conservation and sustainability and rebuilding them,” said Joseph Gordon, manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. oceans Northeast conservation effort. He thinks Magnuson-Stevens is strong enough, but he worries about the economic and political pressure shifting fish stocks can create in states like Connecticut. “I’m convinced that our oceans can support more fishing; they can be thriving even as the climate changes.”

McKenzie was more skeptical. “There’s a lot of unknowns,” he said. “Uncertainty is part and parcel of the process. That doesn’t play well when people are arguing over quotas.”

“The phrase ‘God help us,’ comes to mind.”

— Matthew McKenzie
New England Council member and UConn history professor

What worries him, he said, is the political process that may be needed to manage the shifting fish stocks and other climate-changed-related fishing issues. And if that requires a congressional fix to Magnuson-Stevens or other laws: “The phrase ‘God help us,’ comes to mind,” he said.

On the fishing frontlines, the situation is considered critical. Mike Gambardella said he’s been bumping along this summer as Connecticut fishermen rely on squid and other species they’d never even considered years ago. But he and the fishermen who use his wholesale operation are pinning their hopes on government increasing the amount of fish they can catch among the species that are now here.

“I don’t know how much more I can survive,” he said. “I’m losing a ton of money.”

But like so many in the industry he added: “I do not want to leave here. I love doing this.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is the Mirror’s environmental reporter. Contact her at janellenspiegel@comcast.net


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