Canceled charters, workers with nowhere to live and tourists with few places to stay.
Those are some of the struggles Middle Keys charter fishing companies are facing in one of Monroe County’s most profitable industries following what Gov. Rick Scott called “the most catastrophic storm” Florida has ever seen.
The commercial fishing industry is also hurting in the aftermath of Category 4 Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10.
“They’re getting hit really hard here in the Middle Keys,” said Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Daniel Samess.
In Marathon, the hurricane did not help bolster the workforce of an already unforgiving industry.
“Three of my mates, their places were flooded or washed out,” said Capt. George Wohlers, owner of the Marathon Lady, a longstanding charter head boat at mile marker 53 oceanside. “Two are leaving because they can’t find a place to live here.”
On top of the lack of affordable housing, there is now a lack of places for visitors to stay and that doesn’t help, he said.
“We would have started up two weeks ago but there’s nobody here,” Wohler said Thursday, adding he planned to start half-day charters over the weekend. The Marathon Lady was lifted onto the docks by storm surge and sustained a few scratches but fared well, he said.
Business slows for most in September and October, but Christy Johnson of SeaSquared Fishing Charters in Marathon said this month has been twice as slow as usual.
SeaSquared has five boats in its fleet and runs out of the marina at the Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club in Marathon. One, Blue Magic, was lost in the hurricane while docked at the Driftwood Marina. It’s not owned by SeaSquared.
The business has had 25 cancellations for charters that were reserved prior to the hurricane.
As of Aug. 31, business was up 48 percent over the same eight-month period in 2016, Johnson said.
“But now it looks like we’ll end the year with only 20 to 25 percent annual growth. The unknown is how many new bookings we’ve lost since Sept. 10,” she said. “Our biggest concern is the lack of accommodations for charter guests in the near future. The loss of some vacation rental properties and resorts such as Hawks Cay will most assuredly have a negative impact on our business.”
Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key sustained major damage in the storm and will not reopen until summer 2018, representatives say.
Three full-time mates working for SeaSquared had housing issues but plan on returning to work when it picks up again.
Popular fish to be catching right now are snapper, grouper, cobia and kingfish on the reef, Johnson said.
“And we’re hoping for sailfish to show up with these cold fronts,” Johnson said. “Offshore, we’re catching mahi and tuna. In the Florida Bay, we’re catching snappers, groupers, mackerel and sharks.”
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219