Charter boat fishing has a long tradition on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and is a big part of the area’s tourism offerings. Currently, the industry is facing numerous challenges but the hardy lot who captain these boats say the business will rebound.
Mike Moore, who owns two charter fishing boats and works as a destination sales manager for the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees a post-Katrina trend of boat captains having full-time jobs in addition to running their boats. He also recently purchased the popular tourist attraction, the Biloxi Shrimping Tour.
“It wasn’t like that before Katrina,” he said. “Most of the captains are gifted with other trades such as welding, plumbing and pipe fitting and they work in those trades. I think we’ll see this continue until things get back up and running. It would really be difficult if they had to depend solely on their charter boats.”
Moore says the rising cost of fuel and lack of visitors is hitting a double blow to the charter fishing business but the strong will survive.
“Right after Katrina we had a lot of insurance business and FEMA workers,” he said. “That type of activity was robust but it isn’t anymore.”
The names of Kenny Barhanovich and Jay Trochesset are synonymous with Biloxi fishing and have seen years of ups and downs in the business. Although they acknowledge the powerful punch dealt by Hurricane Katrina and high diesel costs, they remain optimistic.
“I’ve seen a lot of people get in and out of the charter boat business,” Barhanovich, whose family has been in the industry since 1960, said. “It’s a tough business, especially if you’ve got a boat note. The business will come back, and we’re going to stick with it.”
Barhanovich captains the Miss Hospitality and has two sons-in-law who captain their own boats. He recalls that it took five to six years to get over the blow dealt by Hurricane Camille.
“We didn’t have the casinos back then or as many hotels as we have now,” he says of his optimism. “The cost of fuel makes people stay closer to home. The last time fuel went up, we had more Mississippi people coming to fish with us.”
Unfortunately, Barhanovich lost all his customers’ addresses and telephone numbers in the storm and can not get in touch with them. “But they get in touch with me,” he said. “We’re still in the business of pleasing people and catching fish.”
He adds that the fishing will be better in July. “The hotter the water gets, the better the fishing is,” he said. “There are plenty of mackerels, jacks and red fish.”
Jay Trochesset became a captain in the 1960s and began running his own boat in 1973. Although he’s building a new boat, he finds it a scary time to be in the business. His sons, Dustin and Brandon, had boats before the hurricane but now work with him.
“It’s getting serious for us. A lot of people are suffering,” he said. “There have been charter boats in Biloxi since the late 1800s and they will always be here. I’m trying to be one of those who sees the glass half full.”
The number of trips he makes on his Silver Dollar II is down, but the number of people is the same even though he’s gone up on the price twice since Katrina. Trochesset’s boat is Coast Guard-certified to carry 45 passengers, but the average is 12 per trip. He is so optimistic about the resiliency of the business that he will have a new boat ready this fall. It will be faster with bigger engines.
“I’m in it for the long haul; one of the few looking to stay in,” he said. “I’m getting calls from people and hope things come back in ‘09.”
The captains point to the $1-billion Margaritaville Casino project now under construction as a positive sign that visitors will continue to come to Biloxi. They believe many of those visitors will want to fish, just as they always have.
However, in the short term, Moore says the number of charter boats operating is down and it’s hard to make a living in it.
“I used to have 130 trips a year,” Moore said. “Last year the number was in the 80s. This year, I’ll be lucky to be in the 80s, but I’m not hitting it hard and will let others take the trips.”
Fourteen years ago when he got in the business, a half-day trip (four hours) cost $350. Now, it costs $750. Moore says people will still pay to go on fishing trips.
“We have some positive things happening as we get back more harbors and stop looking like a war zone,” he said. “The fishing is good, and we are having four national championships here on TV this year. That gives us credibility and exposure.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.