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Weathering The Storm: On COVID-19 and the Saltwater Guide Industry

Editors note: This article first appeared in From the Waterfront.

John McMurray photo

These last several weeks have been awful. No matter how hard I try to find a silver lining, there sure doesn’t appear to be one.

If you live in the tri-state area and don’t know anyone who’s been sick yet, you are in the minority. And if you’re on the other end of the spectrum and you’ve lost someone, well, I am really, REALLY sorry. If you own or work in a restaurant or any industry that depends on gatherings to make a buck, well, I’m sorry too, and I hope to God you get out of this with minimal damage, although I understand full well that’s unlikely. And if you got laid off, well, I’m really sorry to hear it. Hopefully, those jobs will come back. Finally, if you are one of the front-line workers, risking life and limb to help people, I’m sure you’re at your wits’ end. I have nothing but complete and utter respect for you. Whether you chose to be in this situation or not, you are present-day heroes.

For sure, there are many people who currently have it worse than me, than us, during all of this. My sympathy is deep, and my thoughts are with those folks. Yet, while I do count my blessings, it’s hard not to think about myself in all of this, about us, about the guide industry, and how all this is likely to affect things now and in the future.

Things aren’t okay

Currently, New York has the “for hire” fleet shut down. It doesn’t matter if you take one or one hundred people out, they don’t care, there are no exceptions. How long is this gonna last? We have no clue. And it’s that uncertainty – all the questions that no one can answer – that is perhaps causing the most heartburn. I mean, it’s hard to know if I should apply for that SBA “forgivable” loan, or file for unemployment. Certainly not if I’m going to be able to work in May.

But, right now, all we know is that the prohibition on running charters will last at least until the end of April. Given recent press, it’s VERY hard to believe that won’t extend well into May, likely June if I had to guess. Those are very important months for those of us in the Northeast and the Mid Atlantic. They can and often do make or break a season. And it’s not unreasonable to think the prohibition could last considerably longer. Of course, it’s not just New York. Other coastal states have constraints on the “for-hire” industry, and even in the ones that don’t, the industry is understandably suffering from a lack of clients.

Are such constraints necessary? Of course, they are, particularly if you are doing open boats, taking lots of passengers in close quarters. But one or two clients, often family members, who know each other well, who have had no exposure and carry no symptoms? It seems to me that it’s riskier walking into a grocery store right now. But I’m not gonna get into that, because I’m in no position to tell anyone what’s safe and what isn’t.

Regardless, what’s justifiable and what isn’t doesn’t really matter at the moment. We’re in a bad spot. One that is not of our creating, one that we have just about zero control over, and certainly one we couldn’t have forecasted.

It makes me seriously think that maybe I shouldn’t have given up so readily on the “real job” concept. The humping it into the city with the rest of the herd every day. But really, how better off would I be right now? Less of my soul left, less sane, but the truth is I’d probably be working from home right now, providing for my family. Instead, I’m just kinda sitting here, wringing my hands, trying to figure out what the next move is.

It’s an unfortunate fact that this time of the year, most of us are overextended. It’s simply the nature of the business. We invest A LOT of money before the season even starts. Those of us who run multi-boat operations are in particularly bad shape. Unfortunately, I fall into that category, in spades. More boats, yes, you can make more money, but you also risk losing a lot more.

If it’s a “good” season, most of us, particularly those of us who spend 150 to 200-days on the water, beat the crap out of our boats and our gear. By the time everything is wrapped up, a LOT needs to be maintained, fixed and often replaced. Those big items, like outboard motors, are NOT cheap, and the smaller ones, well, they add up too. But it’s all good, because over the winter amidst all the knuckle-busting to get things back in shape, the calendar starts to fill up with people wanting to get back out on the water just as badly as you do. By April and May, debts are getting paid, and bank accounts begin to look a lot better.

Of course, that’s not the case this year, is it? What’s next, I don’t know. But if I can’t or we can’t work in May, there are going to be issues. If it extends into June, those issues will get a lot worse quickly.

A lot of us, even most of us, hedge bets, have other jobs or other forms of supplemental income or collect retirement. But there are certainly those of us who, for better or worse, went all in. Afraid I’m one of them. And the stress right now? The best-unspoken truth that maybe I’m a complete dumbass for having my head in the clouds and “following a dream,” instead of being an adult and working a “real” job? Yeah, it’s not a good feeling.

For sure, I’m not even close to the end of my rope (there’s still plenty of it left for the business to hang itself should things not improve). And yes, I have hard assets I can sell should things get worse. And no one is gonna starve here. That said, it may be old-school and sexist, but it’s pretty damn emasculating when your old lady is the breadwinner, while you and your bad decisions are a drain.

But let me emerge from the drama-king/self-pity hole here for a moment.

I don’t/we don’t want any sympathy. For sure, this is an extraordinary situation. But all of us know how precarious this business is. For better or worse, this was a conscious choice with the full understanding of the risk, and there sure isn’t anyone to blame but myself or ourselves. There are other paths I can take if, in the end, this doesn’t work out. But right now I’m hoping, I’m expecting that it will. Maybe that’s blind, head-in-the-sand optimism. Or just the usual waterman’s stubbornness to hang on to the bitter end, because most of us simply don’t want to acknowledge the possibility of a life without this. Or maybe it’s simply an unmistakable will to do what it takes to keep it going.

What can you do to help?

I’ve been asked a lot about what people can do to help. I can ramble off a bunch of stuff about supporting your local guides and tackle shops. Booking trips when the smoke clears IF it ever clears. But even then, under the best of circumstances, it’s gonna be a really tough year for us. Probably a really tough couple of years. I fear much damage has already been done. The variables we all built business models around will likely never be the same. Really, I’m not sure how I’ll emerge from this, how any of us will emerge.
But getting back to the question of how those fortunate enough to avoid major repercussions in all of this can help. Here’s the truth. Unless you can find a miracle cure for COVID-19 in the next few weeks, you can’t. Unfortunately, we’re in for a tough go.

Here’s what you can do.

The American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA) came into existence last year out of necessity – to provide that missing voice of those industry folk who were affected positively by conservation measures, and negatively by short-sighted management. The idea was to fill that niche for an org that placed a value on fish in the water, rather than simply fish harvested. The premise was that conservatively managed fish stocks would result in the sort of abundance that drives opportunity. Such opportunity drives participation, and that sort of participation drives businesses. Because, while it seems like a simple truth that folks book more trips and sell more tackle when the fishing is good, not necessarily based on how many they can kill, it is a concept that is frequently lost on managers who rarely hear from anyone except for those folks who emphasize harvest and harvest alone.

The effort quickly morphed from saltwater guides to small tackle shops and even some manufacturers. And, it’s taken on a following from average joe anglers (associate members) who simply want to be part of an org that advocates conservation rather than simply access and harvest.

What I didn’t forecast is the niche this org has filled as a trade group. ASGA’s leadership has been on the phone and in virtual meetings with legislators and other decision-makers trying to figure out ways for the industry to survive all of this. And while I’m the first one to express my distaste for any sort of government bailout program, that sort of thing may well be how industry makes it through. One thing is very clear. ASGA is making sure that our industry isn’t being left out of any decisions made. And THAT is deserving of support right now.

Because the truth is that without this industry or simply an organized group of folks who really care about the resource, I’m pretty sure the resource won’t last long. In that context, I think this organization and the preservation of the industry it supports, is particularly important.

Let me be clear that I have zero intention of diverting donations made to the Red Cross or anyone else busting their rear ends to make sure front-line workers have the protective gear and the tests they need to do their difficult jobs. Go to the website and sign up. Because of course, there’s power in numbers.

Conclusion

My usual inclination is to use the conclusion to sow hope and optimism. But I’m not gonna sugar coat it. Things are bad for our industry right now. Perhaps they will get better quickly, but the truth is that I don’t really believe that will happen. Getting back to where we need to be will take time. And right now, it’s all about resilience in the face of adversity.

I’ll continue to count my blessings. Because the truth is that things could be A LOT worse. While certainly, we know folks who are or have been sick, none of our friends and family have died, thank God. And while I’m technically outta work right now, I still have health insurance and a wife who can likely carry the load for a while anyway. And for sure, moving forward, I have other options. Lastly, I have a business that can and maybe will come back full steam.

I fully understand that not everyone is as fortunate.

I’m not one to think that things happen for a reason. But who am I to question the order of things? Maybe, in the end, it’ll all work out, and I’ll look back at this and laugh about how overreactive I was. I truthfully wish I were convinced of that.

Right now, there’s nothing I can really do except to push on. And whatever happens, happens.

I’ll do my best, we’ll all do our best, to weather the storm.