This is about the big one that got away.
Not a fish, but fishing, a sport and an economic engine in decline.
In recent years, the sport of saltwater fishing in New Jersey has lost more than one of every 10 jobs lost industry-wide, nearly $200 million in sales and $109 million in contributions to the state’s gross domestic product, according to the most recent economic data from the National Marine Fisheries Service. And since 2007, the industry has continued to lose ground here, according to a Star-Ledger analysis of federal data tracking anglers and the trips they take off of New Jersey’s shores.
For a morning fishing excursion a few weeks ago, the Sea Hunter out of Atlantic Highlands was less than half full, with 32 anglers on board at $42 a head. Capt. Rob Semkewyc said that was a good day for him. Factoring expenses, such as bait, marine fuel, dock fees and two deck hands, he estimates he made about $10 an hour for the 4.5-hour cruise.
“It’s tough living on the water,” Semkewyc said. “Every year it gets tougher.”
Experts point to the recession and an increase in gas prices for curbing the number of fishermen chartering boats and pleasure craft. Anglers also say restrictive catch limits make the sport less appealing for many.
“That’s a major part of the New Jersey tourism industry — it trickles down to restaurants and hotels,” said Thomas Fote, legislative operations manager for the Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association, a cooperative of more than 75 saltwater fishing clubs. “Five years ago, you couldn’t get a space in a marina. There’s a lot of empty spaces in the marinas nowadays.”
Fote said the boat and tackle industries have not been doing as much business lately. Participation in fishing tournaments has also dropped, he said.
“I look at peoples’ backyards and their boats are still sitting there,” he said. “They haven’t put their boats in the water the last couple of years.”
Economic data for the past few years is not yet available, but federal fishing data shows people are taking fewer trips every year in New Jersey, with a 27 percent decrease in saltwater excursions from 2006 to 2011, a loss of about 1.9 million trips.
The decline in the number of anglers is slightly less steep, indicating people are still fishing but taking fewer trips, said Brandon Muffley, chief of the Bureau of Marine Fisheries in New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Sciences.
Other activities such as hunting and freshwater fishing have suffered as well, he said. “General outdoor activities like that have declined over the past five to 10 years.”
There has been about a 26 percent decrease in the number of anglers from out of state who are fishing in New Jersey’s coastal waters. These anglers most often come from Pennsylvania or New York and have made up more than 40 percent of all the anglers fishing here in the past, according to federal fisheries estimates.
Over the past three decades, saltwater fishing trips trended upward until about six years ago, according to the federal data. New Jersey leads the Atlantic Coast in sports fishing catches of summer flounder, bluefish, black sea bass and weakfish, Muffley said.
The drop-off in fishing trips is sharpest among the party and charter boats that take anglers out into deeper waters for a chance at larger fish. While the number of people fishing from shore or on private or rental boats has increased over the years, the for-hire industry has experienced a steady decline in business.
The number of party boats sailing from the Atlantic Highlands Marina has dropped from nine to seven in recent years. Semkewyc said some party boat captains have left the industry altogether, looking for more gainful employment elsewhere.
Semkewyc and his father went into business together in 1993, buying the Sea Hunter and launching it as a party boat. Since then, fishing trips on boats such as his operating in New Jersey have decreased by 60 percent.
Like many in the industry, Semkewyc blames his woes on catch limits put in place the same year he started the business. The limits were instituted to protect several different species that had been overfished. Because of the limits, live release rates for summer flounder climbed from a low of 12 percent in 1985 to 92 percent last year, according to federal fisheries estimates.
“The success rate per angler is one-quarter what it was back in 1992 when the stocks collapsed,” Fote said. “We now force the people to discard more fish than they take home.
Muffley said restrictions have been easing over the past few years as the fishing stock rebuilds.