Why Fish Conservation

Being First In Fish Conservation

This big triggerfish is a result of having reduced bag limits and short season for a couple of years. Conservation Works.

Being the first offshore fishing guide and charter boat in the nation to promote fishery conservation, has been the most rewarding thing we have ever done.  Being responsible and accountable for how we operate, has certainly come with a lot of rewards.  It has also met a lot of resistance from local fishermen and charter boat operators who have always been used to a “free for all” and keeping everything they caught in order to satisfy their ego and to justify their investment into a fishing trip by dividing the number of pounds harvested by how much money they spent on each trip.

We knew that having a conservation message in a time when the world seems to only care about themselves, was very important to future generations.  It is just as important as us as having a safety message.    Instead of worrying about what others thought, we ignored them.  Instead of arguing with people who disagree, we pushed ahead believing what we were doing was the right thing to do for our kids and grand kids.

Back in 2002 when we got started, all we really want for our customers is to experience an opportunity to catch quality fish.  But that was impossible, because everyone had fished out the gulf to where there were hardly any quality fish like red snapper or trigger fish to catch.  Fish like red snapper never had a chance to make it to maturity before they were harvested.  I was frustrated because the abundance of fish that I knew as a kid was gone.  I wanted to figure out a way that would both educate anglers about the importance of taking only what they needed, instead of trying to fill the freezer.  If everyone thought like I did, all fish species would be abundant and sustainable.

Knowing that in the next 15 years, 75% of our nations population will be living in coastal communities, there is going to be a lot of demand for access to fish and to have a fresh supply of quality seafood.   Unless we have abundant fish stocks and low bag limits, there are not going to be enough fish for everyone to enjoy.  There is also going to be a continued big push by marine manufacturers, tackle stores to want to sell more boats and fishing poles in order to make  more money for their families and investors.  Being a former bank executive and fortune 500 manager, I understand the struggle of wanting to stay in business and have unrestricted growth and profits for your family and shareholders.  I understand how manufacturers want to sell more boats and tackle.  They too want there to be enough fish to go around.  All I know, is if we fishing guides did not work cooperatively with all stakeholders and take a proactive stance and prevent over fishing, we all won’t be in business very long.  If we don’t keep our finger on the pulse of the fishery, we could quickly end up right back where we were prior to 2007 with an “empty ocean.”   We recognized long ago that we all have a responsibility to do what is right and leave a few more fish in the water so others can enjoy catching and eating them.

Charter fishermen are the first ones to notice subtle differences in fish populations increase and decline.  We are also the ones who should be ringing the alarm when we see fish populations beginning to collapse or show signs of abundance.  The problem we have is, the data collected is antiquated, is usually 2 to 3 years behind what anglers are seeing on the water.   Good, real time data is expensive, but with all of the budget crises in government, it has not been a priority until recently.   We are getting closer to having real time electronic log books for all federally permitted charter boats to report our catches and equally important – discards.   Since fish populations are subject to low birth or reproduction rates, over fishing and environmental impacts such as the Deep Water Horizon or Agricultural Chemicals leading to toxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, it is important for us as fishing guides to find the right balance in what we take from our waters.  Some years we can take more.  Some years we will take less.  Conservation is all about recognizing the difference between what are trends and fads while being cognizant of what is going on and quickly adjust to it.

A Lesson Learned About Fish Conservation

Back in the late 1980’s and way before I was a charter fishing guide, I was in the banking business and we would have our Alabama Banker’s Association annual meetings on the Alabama Gulf Coast.   We would also take our family on vacation and stay at the same condominiums each year.   My wife and I became friends with the people who cleaned the condo’s and we always had a lot of respect for them.    We always tried to help them out by removing our own linens and straightening up as much as we could, so their job would be easier after we checked out.

On several occasions, we would ask them questions like “What do you like best or worst about your job?”  What we found out was amazing.  The biggest complaint they had was, “People are messy and leave so much food behind.”   When they explained that almost every day, they would clean out a room and throw away a lot of food like bread, milk, condiments and fish.  I remember asking them about the fish and they said, “We find big bags of fish filets in the refrigerator or freezer.”  I asked, “Why don’t you take it home for yourself?”  They replied, “We can’t eat that much fish.”   This information that I had about charter fishing would later become very valuable to me some 15 years later when I became a charter fishing guide myself.

I didn’t think too much about the condo cleaners comments back then, but when I went into the charter fishing business in 2002 and saw how all of the red snapper, triggerfish, vermilion snapper, gag grouper, greater amberjack had been depleted and over fished, what they said hit home with me.   I knew I could do my part and help reverse this situation about people leaving fish behind in their hotel and condo.  I knew I had to catch fish for my customers, but I was going to have to figure out a way to make my job easier, because there were not many fish left to catch.

red-snapper-conservation

Red Snapper are making a come back, but we must do our part to ensure over fishing never happens again.

My solution was to ask my new customers three questions when they filled out their reservation request to go fishing.  1. Do you want to keep everything you catch?  2.  Do you want to release everything you catch?  3.  Do you want to keep a few for dinner and release the rest?   To my surprise back in 2002, 50% of my early reservation requests were people who wanted to keep everything.   Because of the culture at the big charter boat marina where I tied up, I would have thought 100% of our customers would want to keep everything they caught.   That is what the Marina Charter Office managers mentality for sure.   What was surprising was, there was about 40% who wanted to keep a few for dinner.  The remaining 10% wanted to release them all.  Looking back on the culture of charter fishing back in the day, a good fisherman was one who filled the cooler every trip.  That was how you used to grow your business.  You didn’t even have to be polite back in the day.   The mentality was, “As long as you give your customers a cooler full of fish, they should be happy. ”  What nobody ever thought about was a lot of people who went charter fishing even back in the day, didn’t want to keep that many fish.  They were forced to keep them because that is what fishing guides were supposed to do.   This trend today is 85% keep a few for dinner and 15% are catch and release friendly.  Those who want to fill the cooler or freezer are a dying breed and many no longer charter fish anymore.

After rocking along a few years, it was 2008 when the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation Act was reauthorized by President Bush 43.  A lot of people blame Obama, but it was really President Bush who enacted this law of strict adherance to annual catch limits.  This new revision of the law forced  regional fishery management councils to adhere to science based catch limits as mentioned above.  What this really meant, was they could no longer allow over fishing to occur.  For anglers, this meant shorter fishing seasons and reduced bag limits on red snapper, triggerfish and greater amberjack.

How I Changed In Order To Stay In The Fishing Business

In order to stay in business and adjust to shorter seasons that were forced upon us, I had to figure out how to fish all summer and keep my business generating enough revenue to keep my boat afloat.   That is when I took the first option off my reservation request.  The “Do you want to keep everything you catch?” question was deleted from my reservations page.  It was the scariest time of my life.  Every other charter boat thought I was crazy to do that.  I realized that the “cheese had moved” and I had to figure out how to survive with no fish to harvest due to seasonal bag limit reductions.

You talk about timing.  Removing that question was the best thing I ever did.   By choosing not to cater to those people who wanted to keep everything they caught (because it is physically impossible anymore due to strict bag limits and short seasons), took the pressure off me so I could focus on giving the best customer service in the industry.

Some customers we found out, were not our customers at all.  They were not loyal and did not appreciate what good customer service is all about.  All they wanted was a cooler full of dead, big fish, and didn’t care if there were enough fish for everyone in the future to have.  Because of these anglers old school way of thinking, we were able to separate ourselves from the crowd and grow a following that is unsurpassed today.

We have a chance to influence future generations about the importance of fish conservation and teach them about how having abundant fish populations and sustainable fisheries is important to our nation and to our angling heritage.

Over the years, we have grown our business into one of the most successful guide services in Orange Beach, Alabama.  We don’t worry about trying to please people who can’t be pleased or who do not share our responsible, conservative vision about keeping the best and releasing the rest.  We only care about making you and your family happy.   We also have implemented a policy where we use barbless circle hooks while charter fishing for reef fish like red snapper, triggerfish, vermilion snapper and greater amberjack.  This further ensures that released fish have a chance of surviving unharmed.  It is also an important safety feature that helps protect our customers from getting injured by sharp hooks with barbs.

Doing Our Part – Leaving Our Ego At The Marina

vermilion-snapper

There is nothing wrong with keeping a few fish for dinner. We keep the best and release the rest.

When we go fishing, we leave our ego at the marina dock.  We want you to catch as many fish as you can, but unfortunately, if the fish are big, pull hard and taste good, some species are likely going to be out of season during your visit unless you come during a time when at least one species is open.  Red snapper season for example, begins June 1 and continues through mid July each year.  They average 2-3 pounds each.  Some are larger and some are smaller, but they offer a good fight.  If you come outside of this time, we will still catch them, but we have to let them go.  Unlike other fishing guides who only focus on trying to give their customers a cooler full of dead fish and taking a picture of fish hanging on nails or scattered all over the dock, we politely say no to that practice.   We don’t back in every day, worrying about someone coming in beside us and unloading more fish or larger fish.  That type of ego in charter fishing is what caused the collapse of many recreational fish species such as red snapper, triggerfish, grouper and greater amberjack.  Because we learned from our past, we will only do what is right so future generations will have a chance to have fish for their children and grandchildren.

Our customers are the best.  They are accountable, responsible and conservative people who understand the importance of why they should leave some fish in the water, so future generations will have something to catch.    Our customers measure their success by making sure everyone in their group, has a great experience.  Sure, our customers like to eat fish and so do we.  But we remember those tough years when there were hardly any fish to catch and don’t want to go back there again.  By taking only what we need each trip, ensures that future generations will have something to catch.

Our customers are like us.  They value life experiences greater than anything else. Our vision is now a reality and our way of fishing has become very popular among families. Our new style of charter fishing has turned the corner, and has become a preferred activity for families who vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

When you choose Distraction, you get so much more out of your fishing experience.  Our charter guides are men of faith, competent, knowledgeable, safe, drug & alcohol free, non-smokers, laid back and really care if your fishing deep sea fishing trip is special.  Your family will be safe at all times and be in a professional environment.