Stationed beneath a navy-blue pennant, Capt. Chris Peterson strokes the plush lining of his company’s prized 18-foot skiff. As a scattering of fly-fishing enthusiasts gather around the vessel, the master craftsman pivots the boat’s backrest upward, revealing its double feature as a step stool for the poling tower. Peterson spends his day inside an Atlanta convention center showing two shallow-water boats — but the hearty captain's true clientele is back home in Florida.
For 20 years, Peterson’s Titusville-based company, Hell’s Bay Boatworks, served the “weekend warriors” of South Florida’s backcountry fishing scene. Every year, the company has sold 110 to 120 custom-designed boats, each valued around $65,000.
But as South Florida’s waterways have became increasingly polluted — and hammered for three years in a row by massive toxic algae blooms — Peterson has seen local demand for his boats sink. “I’d never had a down year before, but over the last four years, I’ve lost 10 percent in sales in Florida,” he says.
In the past 18 months, Peterson estimates Hell’s Bay has lost a million-and-a-half dollars in revenue, a heavy blow that has forced him to market his boats to consumers in Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. Even so, the fourth-generation entrepreneur from Orlando insists his losses are on the lower end because he has compensated with out-of-state sales. Other Florida-based boat manufacturers, however, haven't been as lucky, reporting huge drops in business of up to 80 percent.
With boat sales on an accelerated decline, local sportsmen worry about a collapse of Florida’s fishing industry.
“It’s at the tipping point. Fishing here has gone to hell in a hand basket,” says Ed Tamson, Florida's representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Tamson, an avid angler, says it wasn’t always this way. Considered the “Fishing Capital of the World,” Florida boasts the most saltwater anglers in the nation: 2.4 million, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year, the recreational industry generated $38 million in licenses alone, while adding $7.6 billion and 110,000 jobs to the economy, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. As for the commercial fishing industry, Florida headlined as second in the nation in sales and income, and third for number of jobs supported, according to the Department of Commerce.
“But all of it depends on good, clean water,” Tamson says.
South Florida’s water crisis began as early as the 20th Century in the midst of a wetlands removal campaign. After massive hurricanes and floods devastated the land surrounding Lake Okeechobee, government engineers created dikes and canals to redirect the water, thereby protecting nearby residents and the crops in agricultural land. Instead of heading south, discharges of freshwater, polluted by Big Sugar’s fertilizer and urban sewage runoff, were sent to the western and eastern estuaries Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie. There, nutrient overload created algal blooms, turning the normally brackish waters into a deadly ecosystem.
Meanwhile, farther south, Florida Bay became hypersaline without the influx of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, killing off acres of seagrass, the nurseries in which many native fish species lived and spawned.
With little reform to water management regulations, water quality has continued to diminish, accompanied by a decline in many fish species. Recreational anglers have been forced to contract their fishing grounds and pole closer to one another. With more concentrated fishing, many worry the added pressure will only further decimate the fish population.
“Since the fish aren’t using the areas where the seagrass died, we can’t spread out like we used to,” says Sandy Moret, owner of a fly-fishing outfitter in Islamorada. He estimates that of 150,000 acres in Florida Bay, where fish live and feed, 30 percent of the habitat has already been lost.
Kevin Fenn, co-owner of East Cape, an Orlando-based custom boat manufacturer, also laments the loss of South Florida’s most valuable resource.
“We’re known as the mecca and Holy Grail of inshore fishing,” he says. “South Florida is a national and global destination for serious anglers who want to fish for tarpon, redfish, snook, permit, and bonefish.” But with the poor water quality and dwindling fish populations, fishermen have begun to fish elsewhere: “Because of social media and the internet, word travels fast.”
Without fish or fishermen, boat sales have naturally flatlined.
As a smaller, highly custom boat manufacturer, East Cape builds only 68 to 72 boats a year, each pegged in the mid-to-high $40,000s. However, like Peterson, Fenn has also lost at least 10 percent of his business in Florida. Though his overall sales are recently up, he says it’s simply a result of expanding his market overseas. Just yesterday Fenn loaded up boats to be sent to the Seychelles.
“If it were up to me," he says, "I’d absolutely stick with Florida, but we're a small, boutique company, so it’s just not possible financially.”
But Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats, one of the largest flats-boat wholesalers in the nation, claims his company has been hardest hit. Located in Fort Pierce, Maverick Boats specializes in four boat models designed for Florida’s shallow waters: the original Maverick flats boat, the Hewes flats boat, the Pathfinder bay boat, and the Cobia offshore boat. Though his boats are cheaper than other brands on average, with each priced around $40,000, the Vero Beach native says he has lost at least 80 percent of his business in Florida.
Deal says he doesn't believe climate change is to blame for the problems. The culprits, he claims, are Florida's water "mismanagement" officials, who openly let Big Sugar heavily pollute the state's waterways.
“There’s pretty good agreement that the sugar industry has control over the South Florida management district,” he says. But upon comparing the economic values of the sugar industry and the marine industry, he says it’s staggering how much more political clout Big Sugar carries, particularly after being confronted with such glaring evidence of ecological malpractice.
“It’s not a science problem," Moret says. "Everyone knows the science. It’s a problem of how water is managed by the political weight of agriculture.”
However, Jack Ellis, a statistician at InfoLink, a market research company for the boating industry, says he’s not so sure that boat sales in the Florida market have gone down because of the water crisis. Though he does find a decrease in sales over the past year for both Maverick and Hell’s Bay, he says correlation doesn't mean causation.
“It’s hard to draw a correlation between water quality and a reduction in boat sales," he says. "It’s like saying aging causes cancer.”
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Rather, he attributes the decline in boat sales to a shift in consumer preference. “Entry-level boaters tend to buy smaller, flats boats, so it could be that more people are upgrading to larger, offshore boats. There just might be fewer entry-level boaters,” he says.
However, with Hell’s Bay and East Cape successfully selling flats boats and bay boats out-of-state, it seems unlikely that people, Floridians included, have simply become uninterested in inshore boating.
Regardless, Fenn says the decline in boat sales will affect the entire fishing industry. Thus far, many fishing guides have reported massive drops in their clientele — up to 70 percent in one case, owing to complaints over repulsive algal blooms and sparse fish. In many cases, clients see the danger signs plastered to the piers, warning them not to touch the contaminated water. Oftentimes it's enough of a deterrent to never venture in. As fewer clients book fishing trips, guides lose the will to maintain their boats — even less so to buy new ones.
But Fenn says the issue extends far beyond the individual fisherman: “From the captain to the bait shop, the gas station, the corner convenience shop on the way to the boat ramp, the marina, even the hotels and the tourism industry. If all of South Florida stops having boats, our state is going to be hurting.”