Fishing and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have always been a natural combination with charter boats providing that outdoor activity for scores of visitors. Even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, fishing continues to be an activity for visitors. The latest study by Mississippi State University found that fishing made a yearly economic impact of $8.3 million on the three coastal counties.
According to Tom Becker, president of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association, 90% of his members’ boats are ready to go. The boats fared well during the storm although a tree fell on one and a house on another.
“A lot of the boats are on trailers but most of us can go when needed,” he said. “We’re working with guards at the highway check points and are taking groups of emergency workers, insurance adjustors and construction workers out to fish.”
The boat captains face the challenges of decreased number of visitors and available hotel rooms, lack of operating marinas, debris in the Mississippi Sound and high fuel prices. Still, Becker is optimistic. “We’re coming back although it will take a while, “he said. “We can do it if we just keep moving. We’re trying to get the word out that charter boat fishing is available.”
He says the Sound is safe because large obstacles are marked and much of the debris is being removed. Also, hotels are coming back.
Currently, 4,500 hotel rooms are operational in the three counties, according to Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association. Before Katrina there were 17,000 rooms.
“I get reports of openings of five to 10 rooms daily,” she said. “It will probably be a year before there’s a big influx of rooms. The majority of the operating rooms are now filled with long term stay.”
Hornsby predicts the room situation will remain the same for another six months before emergency crews depart. Then the next phase will begin with construction workers filling rooms for at least four to six months.
“I’ve been booking visiting workers for fishing and golf since the hurricane,” she said. “They want to get away when they have a day off. The fish are definitely out there and I’m getting good reports from those who go on charter trips.”
Becker refers to these visitors as new tourists. Steve Richer, the head of tourism in Harrison County, calls them voluntourists and says he’s trying to make it a real term.
“We’re glad the charter boats didn’t have much damage and that they’re back out there catching fish,” Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “They are one of the first parts of the industry coming back. We’re happy they’re back and happy the fish are biting.”
He says the CVB is trying to help the captains get the word out by posting news on the CVB Web site. With no advertising dollars at this time, there’s little else they can do, but
Richer hopes more will be possible as additional lodging taxes are collected. The charter boat association recently ran advertising in USA Today and has more set to run after the first of the year.
The association is made up of 110 captains and 250 deckhands who are associate members. Becker says the majority are in the fishing business full time. “We’re not a bunch of guys out partying,” he said. “We’re earning a living and making an economic impact in the area. Under normal circumstances, we can do well with charter boats.”
He fears that an increased economic strain may cause some captains to discontinue running their boats. Before the storm, the industry was looking at ways to confront high fuel costs. “We’re still looking at alternative fuels and ways to get better gas mileage,” he said. “We don’t want to raise the price of charters and put them out of people’s range.”
Becker says the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) may help with hurricane relief funds along with the 3,500-strong National Association of Charter Boat Operators. Becker serves as second vice president of the national organization and says they’ve sent representatives to interview captains for aid.
In spite of everything, Becker has had a few calls from individuals wanting to join the association. He believes the industry will survive and thrive as tourism stabilizes.
The association was formed in the early 1970s when a small group of captains realized the need to be heard in numbers. The captains operate their vessels under strict U.S. Coast Guard regulations for the protection of passengers and boats.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.