The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to the already beleaguered for-hire fishing boat industry in New Jersey, captains of party boats along the Jersey shore told Breitbart News.
The business owners are urging both state and federal governments to allow them to make a living or help them survive the lockdown.
Party boats offer rides – ranging from half a day to several-day trips, depending on the targeted fish – for those seeking to fish recreationally. The angler pays for their ticket and receives a space on the boat, bait, and service from the mates on board, who help bring the fish aboard and often filet the catches.
The boats are particularly attractive to families and beginner fishermen as they are guaranteed the guidance of a captain who knows where the fish are and the patience of mates willing to explain how to fish and offer tips on how to do it. They also help fishermen who do not have the income to buy and maintain a boat experience deep sea fishing.
Charter boats offer a similar service to smaller groups for those who wish not to fish around strangers or have more control of the experience.
For decades, party and charter boats have offered rides to interested customers in New Jersey for species like bluefish, both summer and winter flounder, black sea bass, striped bass, blackfish, and other native species. Initially, the boats catered almost exclusively to those with a passion for fishing and eating fresh fish, offering the opportunity to earn back much of your ticket on the boat in a fresh and edible catch.
Increasingly stringent environmental regulations have made this marketing strategy unviable, however, as limits on the size and number of fish each individual can take home make it impossible to catch back your fare. Add to that the skyrocketing costs of boat fuel, bait, insurance, and marina rent, and the captains have been forced to increase the price of their service in the face of dwindling demand.
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) records show as many as 50 party boats closed up shop in New Jersey between 1996 and 2019. Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996, which granted sweeping powers to federal regulators to limit how much recreational fishing businesses could catch from the ocean.
Now, many of the costs remain, but offering their services is illegal.
Governor Phil Murphy made the conducting of all “non-essential” businesses illegal on March 21. Despite offering riders the chance to bring home food, fishing on party boats or charters is considered recreational and thus “non-essential.” Murphy has not offered any indication as to when these businesses can resume offering fishing trips.
New Jersey has imposed one of the country’s strictest lockdown regimes due to both having one of the most severe outbreaks of Chinese coronavirus in the country and being on the border with New York City, the epicenter of the American outbreak. At press time, New Jersey has documented 95,914 cases of coronavirus and 5,150 deaths.
The Starfish of Sea Isle City, New Jersey (courtesy Captain Bob Rush, Jr.)
The members of the for-hire boating business – which includes charter boats, party boats, and boats that do not offer fishing trips but provide social venues on the water – who spoke to Breitbart News expressed unanimous support for social distancing measures and mitigation of the spread of the Chinese coronavirus. None expressed a willingness to disobey or protest the advice of medical experts.
Nor did any express disagreement with having rules in place to protect fish populations in the Atlantic. If a fish becomes endangered, they become more difficult to catch and the trips they offer become less fun, driving down demand. If a popular fishing species becomes extinct, their business has a high chance of meeting that fate, too. Reasonable conservation of the environment is a compatible, and likely necessary, goal with the conservation of small Jersey shore fishing businesses.
Yet the captains expressed frustration at the manner in which state and federal officials have handled their relationship with the industry.
“I don’t have any words to justify everything that’s going on, I really don’t,” Captain Bob Rush, Jr., whose Starfish sails out of Sea Isle City, New Jersey, told Breitbart News in an interview on Monday. “I do have words but, unfortunately, you can’t print explicits – you can quote me on that.”
“I’m all for making sure that everybody is healthy, health is number one, but also, in turn, people have to work, people have to be able to pay their bills. And with everything shut down like this … I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life and I never want to see it again,” Rush lamented.
“We have a for-hire boat where we offer people can stay six feet apart, masks … and we can’t get the ok to open up. So basically the entire fishing fleet is basically shut down,” Rush noted, explaining the state government gave all boats a “flat no.”
“They gave us no reasoning whatsoever,” he said. “It’s a situation that it’s out of your hands, and you’re basically told by the government ‘you can’t go earn a living,’ even if you follow all the guidelines, wear gloves and wash your hands, and wear a face mask.”
“It used to be a fun business to be in, it really was. Believe it or not, it’s not any fun anymore, because everything is a hassle, the price of everything, the regulations, they destroyed it,” Captain Rob Semkewyc told Breitbart News in an interview on Wednesday. Semkewyc’s Seahunter sails out of Atlantic Highlands. The captain says expenses are so high with no source of income or help from the government that he may “just pull it [the Seahunter] out, it might be cheaper to keep it on land” since the marina will “charge me like I’m doing business, and I’m not.”
“Right now we should be fishing for striped bass but we can’t do that because of the restrictions,” Captain Robert Bogan of the Gambler, based in Point Pleasant Beach, told Breitbart News in an interview Monday. “And we understand to a point, but there’s got to be something they can do to help us out. They’re not giving us money, they’re not saying ‘here’s some money and stay home.’”
Bogan and wife Susan Payne-Bogan have written a letter to Governor Murphy urging him to consider allowing the boats to conduct business following social distancing guidelines or offer an alternative service the boats could conduct, such as transporting medical protective gear to parts of the north Atlantic in need or other government services.
“We understand it to be the opinion of some that we are a recreational business – but this business started out four generations ago as an opportunity for anglers to provide fresh fish for their families,” Payne-Boyle wrote in the letter to Murphy. “My husband is a fourth-generation captain and vessel owner. The fishing industry has already been struggling for years to remain viable under the continued strict, ever-changing fishing regulations.”
The letter suggests allowing party boats to “comply in accordance to the regulations set forth for those businesses still allowed to operate –essentially, abide by the same, prudent rules, that you have set for grocery stores and the like.”
“We are not asking for special treatment. We are requesting the same opportunity/right to manage our business as the approved essential/functioning business have been granted,” the letter notes. “Ultimately, we are asking to stay in business, be a functioning contributing member of our shore community –and not be destitute!”
“If the answer is ‘No Way, Not Going to Do It, The Risk is too Great,’ I ask, ‘Is there anything that our government can employ our vessels to assist with during this time and be compensated through a government contract?’” Payne-Bogan proposed.
The letter’s suggestions align with the message sent by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a political action organization created to protect businesses precisely like the party boats.
“The RFA strongly believes that recreational fishing is not only an approved outdoor activity, but also one that provides citizens the opportunity to obtain sustenance, yet questions remain about how the order is to be interpreted and the status of businesses that support recreational fishing,” the RFA said in a press statement in March. The RFA argued both that “businesses serving recreational fishermen should be classified as ‘essential’” and that Murphy should declare a “federal fishery disaster,” which would “those businesses eligible for emergency assistance from the Economic Development Administration.”
Social distancing on a party boat would look much like social distancing in a store: everyone must wear a mask, stay six feet apart, and boat operators would limit the number of people in the cabin, the central indoor hub of the boat. Rush agreed with the potential of such an arrangement, though Semkewyc suggested it may not be worth it to him to take the boat out with limited tickets sold: “If we raise the price to $100 a head it might be worth it, but who is going to pay that?” (the Seahunter‘s striped bass ticket price is currently $70 for an adult, 3/4 day trip).
Rush, who also runs an advocacy group called the United Boatmen of New Jersey representing 30 to 35 boats, told Breitbart News via email that he supports declaring an economic disaster, freeing up government relief funds.
“We are looking for the Federal and state governments to declare the fishing industry a disaster and hopefully we will be eligible for grant monies that so far to date we have been left out of,” Rush said. “The partisan politics that we have been facing lately is typical of all the rules and regulations our industry has faced over the years. We are, in my opinion, an industry that has to fight for our survival every year. We face draconian cuts in quotas and seasons and can not even offer a budget from year to year because many years we don’t learn what the season will be until 60 to 90 days before the season even starts.”
Murphy’s office has not, at press time, made any indication it has reviewed these proposals. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Breitbart News.
None of those who Breitbart News spoke to in the industry has been able to access federal or state emergency funding for small businesses.
“Right now I’m trying to get some government loans going, I haven’t seen anything yet,” Semkewyc said.
“I tried the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], I’ve tried the grants, I’ve tried for a handful of other things,” Rush said. “I finally got approved to do PPP last week,” but the money hasn’t come, he noted.
“The day for the first grant, the NJEDA grant [New Jersey Economic Development Authority], the application became live in April 3rd, we submitted that morning, and when I went to follow up and find out the status of the grant it had been oversubscribed,” Payne-Bogan said. “And then the Paycheck Protection Program has been oversubscribed, too.”
Speaking to Breitbart News, Payne-Bogan expressed frustration that an industry that used to be primarily about offering fresh food was deemed “non-essential,” and contended that, if this is so, it is because environmental regulations made it impossible for customers to keep a reasonable catch.
“I think customers would agree … that they want fresh fish caught out of their water by their own hands to feed their family moreso than going into a store to buy ‘fresh’ fish,” she said. These customers, she noted, are rightfully dismayed when regulations result in “making you throw back perfectly good fish to take home and feed your family but because they might be half an inch too short, so sorry, got to throw it back … or the worst is when its the day before sea bass season opens, you catch this beautiful sea bass – ‘sorry, you got to throw it back, its not sea bass season.’”
The Seahunter out of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey (courtesy Captain Rob Semkewyc)
Black sea bass has become a point of contention between party boat captains and government officials because, as Bogan put it, “no matter what you’re fishing for, you’re going to catch sea bass.”
In a seminal article on the decline of the party boat industry in the Asbury Park Press, John Oswald reported that sea bass stock – the population of the fish in the ocean – had been rebuilt to between 110 and 125 of what environmental regulations intended it to be by limiting fishing. That was in 2015.
“We agree that there should be regulations, but they go too far. Like, when they have something like sea bass where they admit that the sea bass population has 200-something-percent rebuilt,” Bogan told Breitbart News. “We passed 100 percent so its really 300-something-percent rebuilt, yet they still say ‘you guys caught too many last year.’”
The summer flounder, or fluke, presented a different problem. Current regulation bans keeping a fluke shorter than 18 inches, which Bogan said results in gender disparities in the population.
“With the fluke, they have the size of the fish so big that we’re now only catching the breeding females. The males are smaller, the males don’t usually get much over 18 inches, so we’re catching all the breeding females and it makes no sense.”
Fisherman catch striped bass on the Seahunter (courtesy Capt. Rob Semkewyc)
Striped bass, which would currently be in season if not for the coronavirus lockdown, is facing decreasing stocks. Semkewyc contended that the issue was not organic demand for striped bass, but limits on winter flounder.
“There used to be the striped bass, the stock was rebuilding, but now they limit the flounder and they put all the pressure on the striped bass, so it’s a double-edged sword,” he explained. “They try to save one thing, but now they’re killing something else.”
“The regulations, they make no sense, they really don’t. They have no idea how many fish are in the ocean, not a clue,” Semkewyc lamented.
Then there is the bluefish. Considered more of a “sport fish” for its lower quality meat, bluefish has never had a legal size limit imposed on it or a season, allowing families to fish for “snapper blues,” which can be as small as the palm of one’s hand (larger bluefish can weigh as much as 20 pounds).
Federal overseers announced last year that they believed bluefish to be “overfished” and in need of more regulation. In February, regulations came down limiting each fisherman to keeping only three bluefish a day, or five on a for-hire vessel.
New Jersey fishing captains told the Asbury Park Press, however, that they believed overfishing was not the culprit for allegedly low populations – the fish had simply moved.
“I don’t think they’re really overfished. Up until (Hurricane) Sandy they used to stay in the are of the Mud Bouy. After Sandy, they’ve been coming in and leaving,” Captain Howard Bogan, Jr., of Brielle’s Jamaica told the Park Press in December. The Jamaica, which in the summer does bluefish trips during the day rather than, like many other boats, switching to fluke, seemed not to be having a problem finding them. Bogan is a cousin of the Gambler‘s Robert Bogan, both part of one of the Jersey shore’s most prominent historical fishing families.
Captains told Breitbart News their experience on the water was largely ignored when presented at government meetings, such as events organized by state officials or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“We go to meetings all the time but it seems like they have an agenda, their minds are already made up when you go there,” Semkewyc told Breitbart News. “You can talk till you’re blue in the face, but it don’t matter. They just do what they want to do because they can.”
“If I go to a meeting and I try to say something … and try to explain from my point of view as an expert fisherman, they’ll say ‘that’s anecdotal,’” Bogan said in Monday’s interview. “One time, I got really upset, I said … ‘basically you’re saying I’m a big storyteller.’”
“NOAA Fisheries works closely with fishermen, industries, scientists and managers throughout the Mid-Atlantic on sustainable harvests and fishing practices,” the federal agency said in a statement to Breitbart News, responding to the reports of frustration among the fishermen. “Fishermen are voting members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission; as such, they help shape proposed regulations with their unique knowledge and experience. Regarding black sea bass and summer flounder, the Council and Commission will be meeting jointly (remotely) in two weeks, on May 6. During that meeting we expect to discuss the continued sustainable harvests of both fisheries as well as COVID-19 related fishery impacts to the recreational sector.”
The frustration has pushed many to their limit, as indicated by the high number of party boats going out of business in the past three decades.
Asked what the government could do to help his business, Semkewyc said, “to be honest with you, for them to buy me out. … I don’t see any recoup after this. People will be scared to go fishing after this. We will count the diehard fishermen but the regular people, they might be scared to even do it. Until there is a vaccine … a lot of people don’t even go out of the house right now.”
In Atlantic Highlands, where the Seahunter is located, boat owners are organizing what they are calling an awareness event for the industry on Saturday at noon – a “Sea of Solidarity” parade of boats to “help come up with procedures and a solution to allow this industry to return to service.”
Organizer Captain Dan Schade emphasized to Breitbart News that the event is not meant as a protest of any lockdown measures to protect residents’ health; the press statement on the event strictly mandates that participants follow social distancing guidelines.
“I know everybody is having a tough time, but we just wanted to raise awareness to our industry, the charter boat, head boat industry, and look for solutions to allow us to sail, just to keep top of mind awareness of our industry so that when this is all over people will perhaps join in and take a cruise or go fishing or something along those lines,” Schade told Breitbart News in an interview Wednesday.
Unlike the other captains, Schade does not operate fishing boats. The Navesink Queen and the Mariner offer venues for social occasions, which Schade said he fears will make his businesses even more unviable than party boats.
“Since I’m more of a cruising experience or, you know, celebration of a birthday party or anniversary, I think it’s going to be more difficult for that functionality because … wearing a face mask or anything like that is prohibitive of enjoying a meal or enjoying a drink,” Schade said. “A guy who is fishing can stand on the rail with a mask on and fish, you know, socially distant to a degree. But the cruising industry, I think is going to be a little slower to come back.”
Schade – who noted he faces the same insurance, fuel, marina rental, and maintenance fees as fishing boat operations – also said he has failed to attain any emergency small business funding.
“As soon as the SBA [Small Business Administration] loans became available and you could apply for them online about four or five weeks ago, I put my application in, and I happily received an email that said ‘you’re approved for such and such amount, verify your identity,’ and the next step was going to be loan closing documentation,” he narrated. “And then I logged in last week and it said declined: zero. And I called the SBA three times since then. They speak words of encouragement but they have no final answer … its definitely not a no yet but I haven’t gotten any finances.”
The lack of aid to the boating community in New Jersey after decades of challenges could deprive future generations of the traditions that have a deep history at the Jersey Shore. The situation likely reflects similar struggles during the pandemic nationwide, Rush of the Starfish contended.
“I want to make clear that the majority of the for-hire fleet in the country is owned by mom and pop people who are small business owners,” Rush told Breitbart News. “Most are seasonal businesses who inject billions of dollars into many states’ economies. The for-hire industry has been taking generations of people fishing for food for decades.”
“This pandemic is going to put many for-hire boats and businesses out of business and many won’t be coming back from this uncharted water we are in,” Rush said.