Charter Boat Captains Feel the Crunch of a Bad Economy and Changing Rules

The Charter Boat BluesOffshore fishing captains are feeling the crunch of a bad economy and changing rulesBy Jason Dehart

It’s a perfect day to go fishing  for snapper or grouper. The sky and the sea are clear and blue, there’s a light breeze and the water is calm. If you’re a charter client, all you have to do is kick back and think about the fish story you’ll tell later back at the bar.

But if you’re the charter boat captain, a thousand things are running through your mind aside from the weather and how to put your client on top of the fish. You’re weighed down in a mire of expenses, regulations and requirements — and the flat economy isn’t helping.

"We’re hurting bad," says Capt. Charles "Chuck" Guilford, 78, of Charisma Charters in Mexico Beach.

"Obviously, business has slowed a little due to the economy," says Capt. Kamen Miller, 39, of Carrabelle Charters. But also, "Licenses are renewed annually, you have expensive boat maintenance and dock maintenance, you have less people traveling due to the economy, the real estate boom has tapered off, you have the regulation numbers. So it’s really put a damper on the industry."

There are no state or federal statistics to show how Forgotten Coast charter boats have been affected. Four years ago, in the wake of a moratorium on fishing permits, there was a drop in numbers, according to Bob Zales, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators and a Panama City boat captain. Gulf-wide — from Florida to Texas — the number of federal fishing permits dropped from 1,600 to 1,300.

Zales says the number of state-licensed "guide boat" captains (typically four or fewer passengers) actually increased "a little bit" along Florida’s Gulf coast, which stretches from Pensacola to the Keys. But the fact remains: Times are hard.

"Life in the charter fishing business is not easy anymore," he says.

Some of the gripes Guilford and Miller have today arise from the confusing bag limits and shortened fishing seasons for popular sport fish like Gulf gag grouper and red snapper. Limits seem to change whenever the government thinks a certain species needs time to re-populate. Bag limits and restrictions are set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. First enacted in 1976 and regularly amended since then, it is the primary law governing fisheries management in the United States.

"This is a law that says the fish in the water around the United States have to be maintained at a (sustainable) level," Guilford says.

Fishermen may complain about the immediate effect of the laws, resulting in lower bag limits. But the state’s marine fishery management program says it’s worth it.

"Nobody wants to be restrictive, and we understand the predicament the fishermen are in," says Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management. "But we are required to do what’s best for the resource."

State and federal agencies seek to rebuild the fishery by controlling the length of seasons and limiting the take-home catch.

For example, in January 2006 they lowered the recreational bag limit for Gulf red grouper from two fish daily per person to one fish. This applied to red grouper in state and federal waters. In January 2009, an interim rule changed grouper regulations again. The new limit for red grouper was raised back up to two fish in state waters, but anglers are still limited to one fish in federal waters. The federal limit may go up to two at some point this year.

The new bag limits and other regulations are making boat captains pull their hair out.

"This is the part that’s becoming more and more confusing to charter boat captains and ‘Joe Public’ trying to understand when he can go fishing," Miller says, noting that red snapper season is more than two months shorter this year.

For state waters — which extend out to nine miles — the red snapper season used to run from April 15 to Oct. 31. Now that six-month season has been shortened to four months, from June 1 to Sept. 30.

"What you have now is a guy who used to make his living in a six-month window is now having to do it in a four-month window," Miller says.

That’s not all. Gulf gag grouper season is closed by federal and state law from Feb. 1 to March 31. The two-month closure is designed to allow the species to re-populate, according to the state.

But Guilford says its bad news for people.

"I have people working for me who can’t even make a living out of it anymore," Guilford says. "It has far-reaching effect."
Regardless of the economy, Schlesinger says these regulations have been handed down for decades because they work. Things could be worse, he says. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service limited red snapper season to two months in federal waters. The feds acted because Florida bowed to public pressure and didn’t go along with a recommended four-month red snapper season.

"The whole charter industry begged us not to go along with the season change from six months to four months. They begged us to stand up to the feds," Schlesinger says. "Unfortunately, what happened was way more red snapper were caught in state waters because of the differences in regulation. It meant the feds had to be even more (stringent) on their closed season. Instead of going to a four-month season it went to a two-month season, which was onerous to the charter industry."

Guilford can rattle off a list of what he considers petty tyrannies. He needs to have a host of licenses for each type of fish, and they cost between $25 and $60 annually. For the two boats he runs he needs to have 11 licenses plus his own individual license as a captain and owner of the business.

"There’s too much government," he says.

On top of the licenses and permits, he has to file various detailed reports of his fishing activities. And then, in 2007, the federal government slapped a satellite-tracking device on Gulf fishermen.

"We had to buy and install a vessel monitoring device. It costs me $97 a month. They have a system in South Florida that monitors every one of our vessels 24 hours a day," he says.

The costs continue to pile up even when all the initial red tape is taken care of, Miller says.

"I have a 50-foot boat, and the monthly maintenance fee — just for letting it sit in the water — is $600. So that becomes expensive," he says. "And when you’re running, boats that size get less than a mile to the gallon. If you’re running 40-50 miles roundtrip a day, you start burning some cash."

Meanwhile, Miller says more customers are looking at charter fishing through a cost-benefit analysis, and not liking what they see.

"When the guy looks and asks, ‘What can I catch in Florida?’ and he … can only catch two grouper — which is not right but it’s the way they perceive it — they’ll start looking at it from an economic value standpoint," he says. "What kind of bang for the buck are they getting anymore? The vacationer who wanted to go fishing now may say it may not be worth it."

Schlesinger says there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Just tough it out a little longer.

"The computer modeling says that if we lower harvests for a period of time we can expect increased fish stocks and when those become more abundant and rebuilt, the regulations can be relaxed at some point," he says. "Our goal is to keep the fishery sustainable."

Keeping Up with Regulations (as of May 2009)Recreational regulation changes in the Gulf of Mexico

New federal recreational regulations took effect May 18 in federal Gulf of Mexico waters for shallow-water groupers:

  • Grouper aggregate bag limit reduced to 4 grouper per person per day
  • Gag grouper bag limit reduced to 2 fish per day per person within the 4 aggregate limit
  • Red grouper bag limit increased to 2 fish per person per day within the 4 aggregate limit
  • The recreational harvest season is closed for all shallow water grouper from Feb. 1–Mar. 31. This includes gag, red, black, yellowfin, yellowmouth, rock hind, red hind and scamp groupers.

Proposed season change in the Gulf of Mexico

  • At an April 2009 meeting, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission proposed to change the recreational harvest season for red snapper in Gulf of Mexico state waters from Jun. 1–Sep. 30 to Jun. 1–Aug. 14. This would make the red snapper season in state waters consistent with the season in federal waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) shortened the 2009 federal season because the recreational fishery went over its allowable quota by 1.2 million pounds last year. This overage needs to be accounted for in the current season by a reduction in season length.