What's Going On: Working waterfronts bill would help fishing, shellfishing industries

Jan. 21—The idea of the Thames River as a working waterfront has not captured the public imagination today the same way it did a century or two ago when all manner of businesses, including the whaling industry, revolved around the hustle and bustle of New London and its deep port.

But ever since the massive State Pier renovation project was completed to make way for wind turbine assembly in New London, people have noticed a definite uptick of activity.

This includes the expansion of Mohawk Northeast Inc., a large marine construction company that received a $7 million federal grant to build a marine terminal and metal fabrication facility near the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in the city, as well as the Cashman Dredging & Marine Contracting Co., which recently completed a $4 million project in Gales Ferry to reconstruct a section of a pier there that it hopes to use to stage offshore wind components and for hauling quarried material by boat or rail.

And now more help may be on the way as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is hoping to help steer through Congress a bipartisan Keep America's Waterfronts Working Act that could direct more federal dollars to areas needing help to protect boatbuilding operations, preserve fishing fleets, promote aquaculture and make sure climate change effects are minimal. It may possibly target remediation of industrial sites near the water as well.

"The idea is to give aquaculture and fishermen a fighting chance to hold onto dock space," Courtney said.

In many areas of the country, including southern Maine, the waterfront has become so expensive that it is becoming gentrified. It's hard for a working fisherman, for instance, to outbid a multimillionaire for prime property on the water, so the idea is that government intervention can help folks whose livelihood depends on access to the water to be able to keep fishing or lobstering.

A bipartisan bill approved last year in the U.S. House that failed to make it to the Senate is now making its way through Congress, and Courtney sees a decent chance for success. Keep America's Waterfronts Working Act was submitted cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., last month and is described as an amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 to "establish a working waterfronts Task Force and working waterfronts grant and loan programs, and for other purposes."

According to a description of the bill, states, towns, tribes and other government entities could use funding provided in the act to offer grants or loans up to $50 million to ensure waterfront access for recreation, tourism and commercial businesses as well as help restore and maintain waterfront infrastructure. The cost of the bill has not yet been determined.

"This bill also takes steps to ensure participation from Indigenous peoples recognizing traditional uses of coastal and ocean resources," according to the description.

Courtney said the bill could have been useful to help restore the Stonington fishing docks that had been in a state of disrepair up until recently, when he was able to procure other federal money to begin rebuilding them. He also said funding could be used to help the New London fishing industry or to upgrade piers in the Fort Trumbull area.

Paul Whitescarver, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region economic development group, suggested that the Mohegan Tribe could use funding from the bill to improve waterfront access to its casino site, and the effect could extend as far along the Thames River as Norwich's Business Park North in Occum.

"There's so much going on on the river, I don't think people realize it is a working river," said Whitescarver, whose organization recently commissioned a video that promoted economic development opportunities on underutilized areas of the Thames. The video is available at https://www.secter.org/.

"You're on the maritime highway," he added, citing research work being done at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, Project Oceanology and the Coast Guard research and development center in New London. "There's so much opportunity for growth."

Adding to the luster of southeastern Connecticut and its waterfront, Whitescarver pointed out, is the location of rail lines along the river capable of hauling cargo throughout the Northeast.

Among the organizations already lining up behind the bill is the Marine Fish Conservation Network that looks out for the fishing industry.

"The Keep America's Waterfronts Working Act would provide significant benefits to coastal communities, local jobs, and regional economies by supporting the people who depend on ocean access for their livelihoods," said Robert C. Vandermark, executive director of the group, in a statement.

Courtney said the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association has also shown its backing of the bill. The bill is now being reviewed by the Natural Resources Subcommittee in the House.

I like the idea of a working river if growth can be managed in a responsible manner. It could give the region an identity it has often lacked, and it ties in with the submarine construction industry at Electric Boat as well as the Navy base and U.S. Coast Guard Academy, not to mention the upcoming National Coast Guard Museum and the well-established Submarine Force Museum that houses the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus.

"It's about giving people a fighting chance to have access to coastal waters," Courtney said.

Lee Howard is The Day's business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.