STONINGTON — Bob Guzzo lost the steering in his conch boat on Monday, but somehow navigated back to the town dock.
“The steering stiffened right up and I thought something was in the rudder. We tried it this morning, we thought it was a pump, but it doesn’t seem to be, it seems to be working fine,” he said Tuesday morning, seated on the edge of the vessel. “I’m going to try to get a diver down there to make sure that something isn’t loose and got stuck.”
Guzzo, 63, has two boats — this one, named Hostile Waters that he’s had since about 2010, and the Jenna Lynn II, a fiberglass 50-foot dragger he bought in 1991. At age 10 he started fishing with his uncle, got his commercial fishing license when he was 15, and has been fishing ever since.
His first vessel, the Jenna Lynn, named for his niece, was a wooden boat that finally rotted away. “It was her time. It was an old wooden boat. It couldn’t go any longer with the insurance and everything, it was no more.”
He said he leaves the docks everyday at 5:30 or 6 a.m., fishing for conch and lobster. He has a captain who runs the Jenna Lynn II.
“I’ll do this until I can’t breathe anymore,” he said. “I enjoy it, always have. I may not make a lot of money, but it’s a nice atmosphere to work in.”
But the fishing industry is changing, Guzzo said, the old guard is aging out, and new challenges — particularly the proposed offshore wind farms — may change the way of life forever.
Fishing inside the grid
“We’re giving up traditional fishing grounds that we’ve had for hundreds of years, that have fed the country, that are now going to light a light bulb and it’s not going to be worthwhile,” Guzzo said of the proposed wind farms located in federal waters.
The five New England offshore wind leaseholders — Equinor, Mayflower Wind, Ørsted/Eversource and Vineyard Wind — have proposed to the U.S. Coast Guard a uniform grid-layout of wind turbines with one-by-one nautical-mile spacing. The companies issued a joint statement on November 19, claiming that “independent expert analysis provided to the USCG confirmed that this uniform layout would provide for robust navigational safety and search and rescue capability by providing hundreds of transit corridors to accommodate the region’s vessel traffic.”
“It’s not enough,” Guzzo said of the grid size. “It’s an unknown factor. The way they’ve got it set up, there’s not enough room to travel through.”
Guzzo said it won’t be safe to fish inside the grid and towing will be hazardous because of cables buried along the seafloor.
“There’s not enough room to tow. If you have a couple of boats in there towing, they’re going to run into each other. And if something breaks down and you run into one of those turbines, you don’t know with that propeller going around, you could get blown into that,” he said.
The location of the wind farms also destroys longtime fisheries, said Guzzo.
“They’re taking away places that we’ve fished for this country over hundreds of years and we’re losing that ground,” he said.
Even a wider grid — say 2 x 2 nautical miles — would eliminate fishing grounds and pose a significant problem, said Guzzo.
“They’re still taking away the ground where you tow… that’s the main thing,” he said. “And they’re not going to spread it out because it’ll cost too much money.”
According to Guzzo, the wind companies have offered fishermen equipment and amenities, such as an ice machine, that never materialized.
“They come and see us, ‘Oh, we can throw you this money. We’re going to give you this money for this.’ They’re trying to buy you. There are three or four companies, they’re all throwing pitches at you, ‘Oh, what can we do for you?’” he said. “What you can do is leave.”
Guzzo said wind companies offered anchors so that the fishermen can drop anchor quickly if they run into problems inside the grid.
“If something happens like you lose power — or take this for example, I lost my steering — now I can’t get out of there. The wind’s blowing and I’m going to blow into one of them things. You can’t drop an anchor fast enough,” he said.
Quotas and COVID-19
“I got tired of throwing fish overboard, I could never stand it. I started too long ago and never had to do this. The way they make you fish today is a crime,” said Guzzo of federal quotas on the size and type of catch.
According to Guzzo, the quotas are not serving the purpose of increasing fish populations.
“I think the way we’re doing it is killing more fish than we have to because of throwing them overboard,” he said. “Just throwing them overboard is a sin. We used to try to go get the biggest fluke, but now they’re not worth as much anymore and you’ve got to throw these big beautiful fish overboard. And they don’t swim away, it’s a waste.”
And while the coronavirus has led to a 40 to 50 percent drop in the price of fish, Guzzo said, the quotas have not changed to accommodate it.
“What we do is we just keep going everyday and hopefully it adds up at the end of the week. It’s a fine line right now,” he said. “We bring in what we’re allowed to catch and hopefully get some money for it. There’s no place to go with the stuff. Most fish is consumed in restaurants. People don’t really cook much fish at home. Now with all of these restaurants gone, we have no market for our fish, it’s very cheap, The boats stay at the docks more than they used to.”
The coronavirus has also delayed a federal program that would place observers on the fishing vessels — a program that Guzzo called “ridiculous.”
“We held them off another month because we don’t know where they’ve been, they’re all young kids, and we’re all older in this business. It’s too much close contact. Where are you going to go on a 50-foot boat? You can’t do social distancing and you don’t know where these kids have been,” he said. “What are we going to do, buy a thermometer to test them when they come on the boat?”
The government is instead proposing mounting cameras on fishing vessels which the fishermen would have to pay for.
“This is ridiculous. They want us to pay for everything,” he said.
And the quota program, Guzzo said, has no tolerance for overages, which are difficult for many fishermen to estimate in advance.
“Even if it is a little extra, instead of throwing it overboard dead, stop. If you have 50 pounds over, they bust us. You try to do the best you can but, come on, if you’re off by 50 pounds or 100 pounds, it should be just forget about it,” he said.
Doing the work
Guzzo said it has also become difficult to find assistants who want to work on fishing boats.
“You can’t get nobody to work. This isn’t that hard, but nobody wants to work anymore. People are pounding for a job, but not this,” he said. “The guy I had was 70. It’s a lot of bull work so I need a younger guy with a strong back and weak mind. You have to carry 50 or 60 of these pots and move them and they’re pretty heavy, some of them are wood and cement.”
As far as why he didn’t call anyone to pick him up when he lost his steering the day before, he laughed.
“Why would I call anybody? If I had a real problem then I would call these guys to come and get me. We have plenty of boats to come and get us,” he said. “Not going fishing is a problem.”
Guzzo opened his flip phone and arranged to pick up his diver for a look at the rudder.
“If worse came to worse I would have put a pump wrench down there and held the rudder with a pipe wrench and try to get back. If not I can call someone to get me,” he said, as he stepped onto the dock. “It’s only water. No big deal.”