The fish are biting, but Michigan’s charter fishing industry is struggling

A recent Michigan Sea Grant survey found that the average captain lost 15 trips during the early part of the 2020 season, which led to an overall loss of $4.5 million in revenue from charter fees.

A charter boat on the lake.
A recent Michigan Sea Grant survey found that 32% of captains who were actively chartering in 2019 had not taken a single trip during 2020. On average, captains were down a total of 15 trips during the early part of the 2020 season. This led to an overall loss of $4.5 million in revenue from charter fishing trips during the early part of the 2020 season.

This year has been a strange one, to be sure. Talk among Michigan’s charter captains usually focuses on where the fish are and what they are biting, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions have had a much more immediate impact on the fishing industry this year.

Michigan Sea Grant is conducting a series of surveys on the status of Michigan’s charter fleet in 2019 and 2020. The most recent survey was completed in July and had 149 responses from captains who detailed how their charter fishing activity and revenues compared during the early season (March-June).

The survey found that 32% of captains who were actively chartering in 2019 had not taken a single trip during 2020. On average, captains were down a total of 15 trips during the early part of the 2020 season. This led to an overall loss of $4.5 million in revenue from charter fishing trips during the early part of the 2020 season.

Bookings during the late part of the season were also down, with nearly 15% of captains indicating that they have no trips booked for late summer – which is the peak fishing season in many areas of the state. Over 75% of captains reported a substantial decline in late-season bookings. However, a handful (8.8%) had seen an increase in bookings for 2020. One captain who has seen a rise in trips noted that people are looking for new activities to try outside, and charter fishing fits the bill perfectly.

Spring fisheries hit hard

Some of the captains who were hit the hardest were those who focused on spring fisheries for walleye and steelhead. Due to the timing of the stay at home order and restriction on motorized boating, captains who focused only on spring fishing lost their entire season. When restrictions were relaxed later in the season, many captains expressed concern regarding guidance that left captains and customers unsure of the legality and safety of operating a charter fishing business.

When asked about the impact of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by novel coronavirus, on their business, many captains expressed concern about their own safety and the safety of clients. Many captains also expressed frustration with the Governor’s shutdown and subsequent executive orders, along with shifting guidelines and inconsistent enforcement.

Although there were some common themes, the list of concerns was long. Captains who regularly fish Canadian waters saw their business suffer from the border closure, while others mentioned that impacts to other businesses had an indirect effect on their ability to run trips. With mechanics overbooked or out of business after the shutdown, one captain was unable to get his boat in working order. Others found that customers were less interested in travelling for charter fishing because hotels, campgrounds, marina facilities, tackle shops, and restaurants were unavailable in the area. Cancellation of corporate trips also put a dent in bookings for some, and the loss of additional revenue from cancelled sport shows and seminars had an impact, as well.

Mask clarification has helped

Several captains were particularly frustrated with a hard-and-fast requirement for social distancing, which can be impossible to maintain with multiple people on a boat. On July 13, after the survey timeframe, Executive Order 2020-147 was issued. This order specified that masks must be worn outside when social distancing cannot be maintained, which helped to clarify that social distancing is not required when outside if masks are being worn. Charter fishing provisions from Michigan DNR were updated on August 12 to reflect this.

The good news is that charter fishing is officially open for business in Michigan and plenty of good fishing is available. Although there was considerable confusion earlier in the season, it is now clear that either a mask or social distancing is required while fishing with people who do not live in your household. This means that you and your friends can charter a boat and take full advantage of fantastic late-summer salmon fishing on Lake Michigan, chase early fall muskies on Lake St. Clair, or book a trip for the fall steelhead run on your favorite river.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research, and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This report was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA180AR4170102 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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