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As pandemic lingers, charter fishing captains try to stay afloat

The coronavirus has crippled the charter fishing industry throughout Tampa Bay, which normally flourishes in March and April.

ST. PETERSBURG — On a normal spring morning, when March has segued to April and legions of snook scurry in shallow water near robust mangroves, Tom Campbell’s boat and schedule would be packed.

His 24-foot Canyon Bay with the half tower and 300-horsepower engine would be hauling corporate types, locals or even the last wave of spring-breakers across flats and beneath bridges. He’d be baiting one hook after another with pilchards, suggesting where customers should cast for optimal chance of pulling in that trophy redfish, or at least that evening’s entrée.

“This time of year, it’s not uncommon to run a dozen (charters) a week,” Campbell said.

Yet on this cloudless, cool Thursday morning, Campbell’s boat is empty as he idles toward a vacant ramp at Maximo Park in south St. Petersburg. A blissful day like this normally would be bountiful for him and the customers, who normally pay $400 (per two anglers) for a half day and $700 for eight hours.

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But the coronavirus pandemic has cost him 28 charters in March alone.

“Really, it’s kind of demoralizing because it’s like, ‘Man, this is gonna be a great year,’” said Campbell, operator of Salinity Now charter fishing service.

“It started off, everything was going really well, projections were awesome. And then this is just really when it was supposed to get hot-and-heavy busy.”

Charter boat captain Tom Campbell is out on the waters of the lower Tampa Bay and Fort De Soto Park fishing for snook and red fish on April 2 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For now, Campbell — licensed to carry up to six customers at a time — says he remains in business. Whether he’s legally permitted to continue operating is uncertain, and recent governmental decrees offer little clarification.

Orders issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners list boat charters as “non-essential businesses” that must close during the pandemic. But those same orders indicate fishing and recreational boating are “essential activities." It also says boat ramps, marinas and bait/tackle shops may remain open.

Additionally, charter captains are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“What’s confusing is, the Coast Guard lists us as essential," said Rob Gorta, a St. Petersburg-based charter fishing captain for 23 years. “We are Merchant Mariners.”

Unfortunately for Gorta, Campbell and the 3,500 other captains with valid charter licenses in the state (according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), their status ― essential or non-essential ― seems a moot point.

These days, they can’t get a nibble of business.

“I have run one trip since the 21st of March,” Gorta said. “And normally they would be booked every day.”

In the same figurative, foundering boat is Dave Mistretta, operator of Jawstoo Fishing Charters and a 37-year veteran of the business. Mistretta, whose 40-foot vessel is docked behind a Holiday Inn on Indian Rocks Beach, calls the coronavirus a worse calamity for his industry than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of a decade ago.

“I’m upside down,” he said. “I mean, we were booked solid all the way from the whole month of March, and now April is wide open. … I don’t have anybody to take.”

Even if he did, he’d be leery.

Capt. Tom Campbell of Salinity Now charter fishing services has watched his business essentially bottom out during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Yet he's still taking customers. "Fishing's not canceled," he said. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In one sense, few activities embrace the spirit of social distancing like recreational saltwater fishing, which contributed nearly $8 billion to Florida’s economy in 2014 (according to data from NOAA Fisheries).

But a 6-foot rule gets compromised quickly with each additional angler.

‘I’ve taken a few friends out fishing and I’ve been uncomfortable the whole time,” Mistretta said, “just because I don’t know where everybody’s been.”

Others don’t share that worry. While Campbell says he likely wouldn’t take a party of six these days, he insists he can observe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines with fewer customers aboard his 24-footer.

So does Gorta, licensed to carry up to four at a time.

“I’m open for business,” said Gorta, who contributes twice-monthly fishing reports to the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m advertising, but pretty much the business isn’t there.”

The pandemic has wiped out what normally is the industry’s peak season, when the only days off are due to inclement weather. The crisis even has spawned one Islamorada captain, Kit Carson Mobley, to start a petition seeking financial help from DeSantis for the charter fishing industry.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it had nearly 3,600 signatures.

“We ask that the state identify urgently needed relief funding,” the petition says. “Our businesses may well not survive without it, drastically reducing an important driver of tourism dollars critical to Florida’s economic engine in the post-COVID 19 recovery.”

Desperate times call for casting a wide net.

“Even hurricanes don’t compare to this,” Gorta said. “Hurricanes come and go, there’s no end to this in the future. That’s what the hardest part is.”

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