4 months ago

Charters, inshore guides feel impact of virus restrictions

It’s like a recurring nightmare. Thankfully, that bad dream has only occurred once every 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, it’s not a dream.

For the charter boat fleet and inshore fishing guides along the Alabama Gulf Coast, the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 virus has caused flashbacks to the spring of 2010 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that paralyzed the northern Gulf Coast.

After the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico and some inshore waters were closed to fishing. In this situation, the Gulf is open, but the customers are gone for the most part. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship have done everything possible to keep the outdoors open, but those who venture out must follow the social distancing guidelines.

Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the 65-foot Intimidator out of Orange Beach, was enjoying some of the best fishing the Gulf has to offer until the virus started taking its toll on his bookings.

“We were set for the best year we’ve ever had,” Greene said. “We were pretty booked up. Then it started dwindling down as people started dealing with the reality of what was going to happen. Trips started canceling from a few days out to a few weeks out to a month out. At this point, I think the reality is we’re just trying to save red snapper season. I don’t know what will come about between now and then.”

The charter industry’s peak business occurs during for-hire snapper season, which is currently scheduled to open June 1 and run through August 1.

“We just don’t know,” Greene said. “It looks like nobody is going to fish much in April, and who knows about May.”

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon is concerned about the impact the shutdown is having on one of Alabama’s favorite pastimes, not to mention the economic harm.

“The pandemic is impacting all aspects of fishing, and I have concerns that some business, especially charter, will not have the financial means to make it through this,” Bannon said. “About $300 million will become available through the CARES Act to specifically address fishing impacts. But we don’t know when that is coming or how it will be divided, and that has to cover the entire country. We do have hope that the restrictions will be lifted by summer and people will want to travel and fish on the Gulf Coast and that will help all aspects of the economy to get started again.”

Meanwhile, some boats are large enough to abide by the virus mitigation guidelines, and Greene is fortunate enough to have one.

“I can carry up to 10 people on the boat and make it work,” he said. “That would be eight passengers and two crew. My boat is in the upper echelon of charters in terms of size. I can spread people out. But a lot of boats are not as big as mine, and it’s going to cause tremendous hardships if people don’t get back to work pretty quick.”

During the offseason, the charters spend money advertising and preparing their boats for the fishing season, which usually cranks up during spring break and runs through the summer. Boat bottoms are cleaned of barnacles and new paint is applied. Engine maintenance is conducted, and propellers are refurbished. Nothing indicated they should put on the brakes.

“We just went through a long winter period of inactivity,” Greene said. “As heavily seasonal as we are, if you go through the boatyard, we had no predictions of this – you know, don’t do this or that. You’re spending your money to make preparations and get your boat ready. Then all of a sudden, you can’t go. That’s the hard part. There are probably going to be some boats that may not make it through this deal. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Greene said his boat was booked for almost every day in March and most of April.

“It all started to fall apart in March,” he said. “I mean, what are we going to say to somebody if they’re scared and don’t want to go. It’s a tough deal, and it’s going to affect a lot of people.”

The uncertainty of when the virus is going to peak and start to diminish is what makes it difficult for the independent contractors like the charter captains and their deck hands.

“It brings back memories of the oil spill,” Greene said. “April 20th is the 10-year anniversary of the oil spill, and it looks like we’ll be sitting here at the dock on that day.”

Greene said one big difference between the oil spill and the COVID-19 shutdown is that numerous charter boats were hired by BP for a variety of tasks during the spill cleanup and recovery.

“Quite a few boats were able to get income from BP,” he said. “Some of them made a lot of money, although I wasn’t one of them. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m thankful for all the blessings I’ve had. I’m not sweating it as much as a lot of guys are. This is going to absolutely cripple some of the younger guys who are just getting going. Of course, it’s not helping me at all in terms of long-term planning. But there are a lot of fishermen in town that are absolutely living paycheck to paycheck. Some filed for unemployment to have something to feed their families. It’s a challenge. Most fishermen are proud people and don’t like handouts. They just want the opportunity to go to work. You take that away and it really affects them. That mental aspect is really hard for people to understand.”

Greene said the virus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of fishing success. Although the charter business was steady, the fishing had been difficult for the past couple of years because of environmental factors, mostly freshwater influx from a flooded Mississippi River.

“The fishing was really good,” he said. “Things had been tough for the past couple of years. This year everything was happening. The fish were biting, and everything was going our way. The weather was beautiful, and the water was pretty. The beeliners (vermilion snapper) were biting. We were catching big triggerfish. Tuna and wahoo were cooperating. Everything you needed for a particular trip was working. Then I left on an overnight trip. I got back and everybody was freaked out. I left for one night and look what happened. It was just crazy.”

Greene was scheduled to leave on a three-day trip this past Monday, but he had to call the customers and cancel. Overnight trips are out during the shutdown.

“You just have to be understanding and try to reschedule as many trips as you can,” he said. “You try to work with people. Everybody is as scared as you are. Charter trips are discretionary money. When people are scared, they’re not going to spend any money. Nobody knows what to do.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a text string with my fishing guide friend, Jay Gunn, and one of the texters posted:

“I’m not sure what’s worse, being a restaurant owner in Gulf Shores or a fishing guide.”

Gunn said he definitely wouldn’t want to be in the restaurant business on the Gulf Coast right now.

“Neither one of those options are very good right now,” Gunn said. “I think I’d rather be a fishing guide because I’ve got a lot less invested in my boat and tackle.”

Gunn, who has canceled all his trips through April, said the shutdown will probably eliminate some people from the guide business.

“If you have a big mortgage or don’t have enough cash on hand to weather a couple of months, you’re probably not going to make it,” he said. “The charters and guides with long-term customers are not going to be as affected, but it’s going to be rough on the new guys.”

Gunn said this virus shutdown is indeed like a flashback to the oil spill, but he chooses to look for the proverbial silver lining.

“The good that can come out it is what I have to look at,” he said. “The beach is not destroyed. It’s just a health situation where nobody can come and fish. But if this closure lasts a while, it could be beneficial to the fishing in the long run.”

Gunn said the sheepshead are spawning right now. With very few anglers out, the sheepshead can complete their spawn virtually unmolested. That abundance of eggs will produce fish that will contribute to the stocks three or four years from now.

“If you remember, five years after the oil spill, all those giant (speckled) trout showed up,” he said. “This won’t have to go on much longer to affect speckled trout. If this extends to the middle of May without any significant fishing taking place, the major speckled trout spawn happens in early May. Now they spawn all the way to September, but the major spawn is in May. If that happens, you can expect a bump in recruitment (juvenile fish entering the adult population). Then you will have a subsequent bump in bigger fish five years from now. Any break these fish get is good for the fish. It’s not good for the fishermen, but it’s good for the fish. And that includes the surf fish, too. You can’t go to the beach, so those fish will get a break. Last year was one of the best pompano runs we’ve had in a while. Those fish won’t get caught on their spawning run either. That could mean better pompano fishing next year and down the road.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

5 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.

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Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

7 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.

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Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

7 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.

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“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”

Watch:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

8 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.

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“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95