STONINGTON — Commercial fishermen rely on a crucial item to keep their catch fresh — ice, and tons of it. But the nearly 30-year-old ice machines at Stonington’s dock have been breaking down in recent years, often failing to produce enough ice for the home fleet and other local boats, resulting in delays and loss of revenue.
“When the boats are fishing hard, each one will take 20 tons of ice per day, so we need the ice production,” said Gary Farrell, dockmaster of Stonington’s town dock, home to a commercial fishing fleet. “… Boats sit at the dock when they can’t get ice. You can’t go out and catch fish unless you got ice to put it on, so this is a big thing for us to get ahead of this.”
On Monday, Farrell stood next to two new ice machines installed on the steel platform on the second floor of the dock’s ice house, which are expected to alleviate the problem. He said each machine is rated for 12 tons of ice production per day, but with the cold weather they were producing about 15 tons per day.
“If I run both machines for 24 hours, they should make about 30 tons of ice a day,” he said. The two older machines were rated at 12 tons per day, but were likely producing closer to 10. “If we keep all them running, we’ll probably be at 40 tons a day, or even 50 depending.”
While the new machines were installed in August, they have required months of fine tuning and maintenance to bring them up to speed, said Farrell.
Rob Smith, president of the Southeastern Connecticut Fisherman and Lobsterman Association, which rents the dock from the town, said the ice house was barely providing ice to all the boats in the Stonington fishing fleet — about 10 vessels total — and struggled to supply ice to other vessels.
“Before, sometimes we’d have everybody waiting. Sometimes guys would have to stagger when they left to go fishing because they had to wait for the ice to catch up,” he said.
The 40-year-plus career fisherman keeps his vessel, the Carly Grace, a 54-foot dragger, in Stonington. Smith said the dock’s main revenue is selling fuel and ice.
“We work on a bare minimum of profit so that we can keep our place running and provide the supplies that the fishermen need in a cost-effective way. We try to keep our price margins down and we are lower than most ports, so that does draw boats in. And we have to turn away boats all the time because the ice machine can’t keep up,” he said.
Any vessel can purchase ice from the Stonington dock, but association members have first priority. Smith said the group has between 75 to 100 members, 24 of them with vessels at the Stonington dock. And with the new ice machines in place, Smith expects that number to grow.
“We’re going to be able to accept these out of town boats now,” he said. “We can sell to anybody. But since it is an association, member boats — the working boats at the pier — come first. You do get a discount for being a member.”
Funding a tradition
Acquiring new ice machines for the Stonington dock posed several challenges for the town.
“I can’t tell you how many different dead ends we went down,” First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said, explaining that the fishermen asked for help shortly after she took office in 2019.
As a commercial entity, the fishermen’s group was not eligible for government grants. But Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, an economic development organization known as SECTER, filled the gap, providing a loan to the association.
The association paid about $400,000 for the two new machines after being approved for a 10-year loan of up to $500,000, according to Dawn Rathbun-Shinn, loan administrative coordinator for SECTER. The loan is part of SECTER’s revolving fund program, which started in the 1990s, Executive Director Paul Whitescarver said.
“[The revolving funds] are for non-bankable entities or a company who might go to the bank and maybe their credit score is not high enough, or as their debt service ratio is not good enough for a bank to give them a loan. So they come to SECTER and we can use these revolving loan funds for entities that are non-bankable,” he said.
Rathbun-Shinn noted that the fishermen borrowed $100,000 in 1996 for the two ice machines that were now in need of replacing.
Joe Gilbert, owner of Empire Fisheries, told CT Examiner last week that the new ice machines supported the bigger picture of keeping the port viable.
“Infrastructure in New England is, in so many places, gentrifying, transitioning to a non-working waterfront. The best way to keep a working waterfront is to keep it economically viable and important to the community, to the state,” said Gilbert, who has been operating out of Stonington since 1986.
He noted there were few fishing ports left in the region, and that Stonington is the “last dedicated fishing port in Connecticut.”
“I know New London’s got a dock for a few trawlers tied up. Down in Westbrook there’s a boat or two. But this is a fleet, this is a concentration of boats where there’s fuel, ice, supplies, and you can come and go any hour of the day,” he said.
Tom Williams, a third-generation fisherman, said Monday that the new ice machines modernize the fishing industry for the area and help economically sustain the dock.
“Guaranteed, they’re going to be the newest machines around. … I think it’s a proactive move. You can’t go fishing without ice and fuel. If you don’t go fishing, there’s no revenue for anybody,” he said.
Farrell explained that the fishing boats are also linked to a web of jobs across the region.
“It’s a trickle down effect because when the boats go fishing, they supply workers in the fish houses that are bringing fish into the markets, to the restaurants,” he said. “It supplies a big, long chain of people that are working off the fishing industry. It’s just not the boats.”
Williams said fishing is a major economic driver for the area.
“They used to figure, and I think it still holds true, for every dollar of fish landed, that translates into $4 of shoreside activity. It used to be $3,” he said. “But this is where it all starts. Ice is the most important thing, because if you don’t have ice and you don’t have fuel, the boat doesn’t go.”