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Charter captains, guides should be considered essential

Bill Hilts Jr.

Some of the best salmon fishing of the season has arrived on the doorstep of Niagara and Orleans counties, if not the entire lake based on some recent social media posts. Lake Erie walleye season has opened, offering anglers a record population of fish. The bass fishing is taking off and lower Niagara River trout fishing is at the top of its game. This is when many charter captains and guides will normally chase fish for the benefit of paying customers – until this year.

After a mild winter in Western New York, the local charter fishing industry was ready to hit the water early. That was until this announcement came from the state: “The ‘New York State on PAUSE’ Executive Order, a 10-point policy to assure uniform safety for everyone during the Covid-19 response, includes a directive that all non-essential businesses statewide must close effective at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 22, and temporarily bans all non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason.”

“At this time, fishing guides or charters of any size have been determined to be not essential and are subject to workforce reduction requirements of the Executive Order.”

The charters and guides of the Empire State were deemed not essential. That could not be further from the truth when it comes to the local lakeshore communities. Charter captains are the catalyst that energizes local businesses. They bring in people that will use accommodations, eat in restaurants and buy  gas.

The skippers are also the ambassadors of our Great Lakes fisheries, serving as promoters of our natural resources. They educate the people coming in as to how and where to fish. Once those customers get a basic knowledge of the fishery, they could eventually bring their own boat and other friends and relatives to the Western New York area.

When the coronavirus hit, charter captains were told they could not operate their businesses, but they could apply for unemployment. However, applying and receiving are two different things.

Charter captains will do whatever it takes to keep people safe on their boats, requiring gloves, masks and keeping things sanitary. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

“The first three weeks after the shutdown we called and called before we finally got through,” said Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters. “Then we were told that we should instead apply for the pandemic unemployment. We did that. A few of the guys received a check for $600 a couple Fridays ago, but no one knows what it was for. There has been nothing since then. We also have not received the $1,200 checks that nearly everyone else received. Some of us tried to apply for the small business loans and we did not qualify for that either.”

“The most discouraging thing is that we really do not know what is going on,” said Campbell. “We are not in the loop. I have customers calling me nearly every single day and I do not know what to tell them. Since March 22 when the state shut us down, I have lost nearly 50 charter trips that I had on the books. I’m not going to be able to make those up.”

Campbell recognized that he may need to take fewer customers due to the size of his vessel to maintain social distancing when things open up, but he may need to reinvent what a typical trip is by running two half-day charters with two clients instead of a full day trip on his 21-foot boat.

One thing New York’s “pause” has done is organize the charter fishing industry, especially on Lake Ontario. Capt. Rob Westcott of Webster, president of the Lake Ontario Charter Boat Association, said:

"As the President of the Lake Ontario Charter Boat Association, I feel it is my responsibility to help support and facilitate getting the fishing charter boat community back working. For us captains, our work is much more than a just a job, our work is our life’s passion and we are extremely fortunate to do something that we genuinely love. As United States Coast Guard licensed captains our number one priority is and always will be the health and safety of our customers and crew. In a strong federally regulated industry, this practice is something that is adhered to and executed by all of us on a constant daily basis."

LOCBA represents over 125 members, but more than 330 captains and over 110 licensed guides work the waters of the lake. A letter will be going out this week to the governor outlining a plan to reopen the charter fishing industry as soon as possible.

In Lake Erie, the Eastern Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, representative of over 50 captains, was working closely with LOCBA to try and establish criteria to get the skippers working again.

“It’s important to have everyone on the same page,” said Capt. Larry Jones, president of the group.

Wearing a face mask and gloves, Capt. Frank Campbell of Lewiston wants to get back chartering again and will do what it takes to keep people safe. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Thrillseeker Charters out of Olcott was equally upset about not working and was hoping to get the charter industry some respect during these trying times.

“Our boats, due to the very nature of our business, are not an easy place for a virus to exist. We work in the open air, on the water in direct virus-killing UV light,” said Pierleoni. “We clean with disinfectants on average every 15 minutes to keep decks and gunnels clean and free of fish slime.

“Despite that, we would be willing to require masks and disposable gloves. The larger Lake Ontario charter boats offer 500-plus square feet of space, and we can easily distance up to the maximum U.S. Coast Guard allowed number of six passengers. Lake Ontario Professional Charter Captains are already devastated financially by being shut down the last 6 weeks, and for the full time Professional operators, there is little or no state or Federal assistance available.

“The loss of income is bad enough, but we are running the very real risk of losing customers to other activities outside the marine industry. People are begging captains to take them out and are upset we won’t, creating ill will.

“The PAUSE act also discriminates against people who don’t own boats. People that own boats can foster better mental health and gather fish for subsistence. Those without a boat cannot hire a captain for the same activities. Also, like in so many other businesses, only the legitimate business owners/stakeholders are punished. ‘Underground’ operators continue to operate as they always have, often without proper licensing or insurance. Meanwhile, charter captains who have invested in the state and pay property taxes cannot operate. The economic losses are far reaching, as so many businesses profit from charter boat activities, especially marinas.”

State Sen. Rob Ortt, who joined in on a conference call with the Niagara County Fisheries Development Board last month, empathized with the industry’s frustration. The next day he fired off a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphasizing the importance of the captains to the communities. Based on a 2010 Economic Impact Study with Niagara University, the charter captains were a large chunk of the $30 million annual revenue generated through sportfishing in Niagara County alone.

In the meantime, the captains are watching other states opening back up for chartering – Ohio on May 12 and Michigan on May 7 to name but a few. Pennsylvania opened on May 1. There has been no word in New York.

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