Another Year On The Water… And Off It

John McMurray

Top photo by Ralph D’Angelo

The grind, the glory, and the absurdity of giving a crap

Well, it’s done. Finally.

Jan 2, the 36′ Contender just got wrapped and the 31′ is stripped and on a trailer, ready to go north for some long overdue shop work. The Maritime Skiff’s rear-end is bare, waiting for a new motor – it’s a miracle I got another year out of the one I just pulled off. And I’ve got a huge worklist all around. Plenty to keep me busy (and from going insane) until fishing starts up in April.

By most accounts, 2019 was a good year; by every account, a grind.

From mid-April through mid-December, I was running trips pretty much EVERY day the weather allowed (save the days I had to be at fishery management meetings) and fixing something on the boats when it didn’t.

Absolutely, that kind of busy is a good thing, but running a charter fishing business on this scale generally involves 10 to 12-hour days in the spring and fall, and 16 to 18-hour days in the summer/tuna-season months (yeah, you read that right, 18).

Think this stuff easy? A dream job? It isn’t.

I don’t get to just jump on the boat and go. I’m the chief mechanic, electrician, accountant, fuel service provider, gear buyer, tackle rigger etc. There are no weekends off and there are rarely 8-hour days.

And try running 5 or 6 days offshore in a row, squeezing out 4 or 5 hours of sleep in-between. Understand that for around 10 of those hours, the body is trying to right itself as a deep-V-hull relentlessly rolls. And almost without fail, figure that on the 60 to 80-mile run to the tuna grounds, and/or the run back, you’re gonna take some kind of beating, due to weather, or simply a captain who likes to go fast (that would be me). Not to mention, the constant deadlifting of fuel totes and big-ass tuna, the pulling hooks out of chronically swollen hands and the perpetually aching joints.

And after all that, you’ve got to burn it to pick your kid up from camp, while your surroundings seem to pitch like you’re still underway, then suck-it-up and pretend like you’re not totally spent for a few hours of family-time. Return messages, emails and phone calls, then – you’re out – almost as soon as your head hits the pillow. Seems like 5 minutes later that the alarm starts whining… 2 a.m. Time to do it all again.

Still, I’m lucky

Don’t mistake any of this for complaining. Far from it. I couldn’t imagine going back to a “real” job, sitting behind a desk, hating the world around me. Yeah, there’s still a little bit of that, but certainly not for weeks, or even days on end anymore.

Every time that alarm shouts at me to wake up, there’s some initial shock, but I’m stoked to do it all over. Because, for the most part, the people I fish with are awesome, and EVERY day is unique in its own remarkable way.

Twenty years ago, I got out of the Coast Guard, got my license and started running a few trips on a crappy 18′ Wahoo. Several boats and two jobs later, I’m the boss, running a full-time fleet – two offshore boats and two skiffs – working with some of the best captains in the region.

More than once I’ve been characterized as one of the most negative dudes in the world, but even I can sit back, look at all this and realize I’ve done pretty well with it. Surprisingly well (for now anyway).

And THAT is pretty awesome.

The cost

But I’d be full on lying if I said everything was swimmingly good.

The truth is that all of it has come with a price. I’m not talking about the physical one, nor the hours/ time away from the family. It’s the heartburn, man. Yeah, I get a lot of the real thing, but I’m talking about it in the figurative sense here – the dark discontent, often morphing into straight-up anxiety. A nagging feeling that no matter how good things are going, something ain’t right. I can bury it, but really, no matter where I am, or what I’m doing, it is always somewhere scratching the back of my mind. And that’s a bummer, particularly because it’s something that’s really hard to put a finger on.

Sure, it could be the realization that it could all come to an end very easily, and very abruptly. Overfishing, climate change, or simply the fish not showing up, one, two or three years in a row, which is entirely possible. I’ve tried my best to prepare for that, but I haven’t and I can’t. I don’t think that’s the extent of it though, because even when I didn’t depend on the ocean to make a living, the feeling was there. And it often has kept me from enjoying life itself.

The absurdity of giving a crap

Ever since those Coast Guard days, I’ve been somehow involved in the fisheries enforcement and/or management side of things.

Why? Other than outright stupidity, I care… I care a lot. Because the truth is that it all means, well, everything. Even more so since I came to understand that my 10-year-old, whom I fish with every other Sunday, has the same saltwater in his veins.

However absurd it is, I’ve always had a hard time just letting things be. Particularly things I have little control over. I could never just sit there and shake my head when I see stocks declining and poor decisions being made. I can’t deal with the blatant short-sightedness/tragedy-of-the-commons way of thinking. Because I know that the future, or my future, isn’t guaranteed.

As I alluded to in my last end-of-the-year piece, I don’t like where any of it is headed. More people, more fishing, more killing, a management system under great pressure to revert to the old days of chronic overfishing, and seemingly, more people that just don’t give a crap. And, there are those folks who do care, yet still look at current science-based regulations as too constraining, as unnecessary, because it doesn’t jive with what they see on the water in their relatively small neck of the woods. I do get where such folks are coming from. But does anyone truly believe that it serves the public interest to have a handful of captains’/anglers’ limited, and likely biased, perceptions trump real peer-reviewed science?

Any astute observer can understand, good fishery conservation laws, where they exist, are working, but they are still under constant and increasing attack, even from what used to be the “good guys.” And where those laws don’t exist? Well, it seems to be one shortsighted half-measure after another.

Fishing – something that’s supposed to be fun and awesome – becomes dark and contentious the minute you engage in the decision-making process. Yet, like a moth to a lightbulb I continue to flutter around it. Because… I can’t just not give a crap.

As a result, I’ve spent close to two decades writing and speaking at events, trying to educate and engage folks. And, there were the nine years (three terms) that I sat on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and then another three years after that, serving as New York’s Legislative Proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, when I became an infamous and often resented conservation voice.

Over the last two years, I testified before Congress on the benefits of precautionary management to the public, to my business and eventually to everyone’s business.

All that has undoubtedly made me a prime target (along with a few notable others) for a loud minority, who believe it is their right that they be able to keep fishing the way they had in the past despite the clearly changing dynamics impacting fisheries. The folks who built their businesses around the idea that everyone gets to fill coolers on their boats see most conservation measures as a direct threat to them. And that’s unfortunate.

Difference of opinions and different stakeholder goals are all part of the management process. I can and do live with that regularly. As manager, you listen to all stakeholder interests and figure out a way to have a sustainable fishery that benefits all parties the best it can. And generally, through the management process, which rarely makes all parties happy, we make things work.

But it was the pure viciousness of the attacks this year that caught me off guard. Guys were saying things like they hoped I’d die of gonorrhea and well, worse. Whatever… I got pretty good at just ignoring it, but, well, when you are eating dinner with your family, and someone texts you a screen shot of some really damn offensive stuff, directed at you, and your family, well, that would make anyone angry. But, that’s their game. Given I’m still here, clearly, they are losing it.

It’s hard to find time for any of this nonsense when you’re working 10-to-18 hour days, trying to make a living. It’s left me thinking more than once – why the hell am I even bothering? However absurd it is though, I keep doing it.

Evolution

All of that said, I get where those folks are coming from. I do.

And despite all of their hostility, I am and always have been interested in hearing them out. Although given the vitriol, that’s become increasingly hard. And in those rare cases when we do have such discussions, there is the startling realization that we agree, on a LOT.

I understand full well that other stakeholders have other objectives. I hold no animosity to those folks who emphasize “limiting out,” and, well, do “limit out” on a regular basis. And for sure, I kill fish too. While I don’t really market limiting-out, nor is it a part of my business model, I have indeed been known to “limit out” every now and then, particularly when it comes to the tuna trips I run.

The truth is that every captain is indeed entitled to his or her legal limit. And I claim no moral high ground when anyone takes it. If managers get things right when they set regulations, taking a full limit won’t do any harm. But… When the science is clear, and there’s a notable decline that everyone sees on the water, yet there’s still aggressive resistance to measures that would correct the situation – and then anyone who supports needed changes is publicly labelled as a tree-hunger, enviro-terrorist, etc. – well THAT is when we butt heads.

I’m in no position to tell anyone how to run his/her business. But it sure seems likely that those folks who created business models that are based on how many fish you can take home, instead of emphasizing the experience of fishing, are in for a world of hurt in the coming years, as one of two things is likely to happen. Either regulations become too constraining, rendering such a business model unworkable, or they are successful in preventing precautionary science-based regulations, and fish simply become less available, which also renders their business models unworkable, because customers can’t fill coolers with fish that aren’t there. Through the simple process of evolution, those who understand that will probably stay in business, while those who haven’t figured it out… well, who knows. I can’t help but think that in the end, it may very well be a process of natural selection.

Are we ALL to blame though?

Indeed we are. That is an undeniable truth. Even those anglers who release all of their fish still kill fish, often a lot of fish, through discard mortality (those fish that die after release). When you multiply a discard mortality rate against effort, discard mortality from anglers really adds up.

The striped bass fishery is a good example of this. Discards account for a whopping 46% of total fishing mortality. Some folks have tried to use it to their advantage, arguing that we should have less constraining measures (i.e. more liberal bag and size limits), which would then reduce discard mortality.

Think about that for a minute. So, we should kill more fish so that fewer fish are killed? Absurd as it sounds, there is some, although only a bit, of truth to it. Liberalized regulations do reduce discards, yet cause a much greater increase in overall mortality, and it’s not hard to understand why. Small fish are easier to find and catch, so odds of catching a smaller “keeper” are much greater than catching a large keeper. That’s the entire premise behind size limits. Larger size limit = less fish killed.

And an increase in bag limits? According to the science, one out of 11 striped bass die when you throw them back. Of course, none of them live when you throw them in the cooler. Yes, there is the argument that folks will stop fishing once they’ve caught their limit. Maybe that’s true in some limited cases. But honestly, I don’t know anyone who goes home immediately after catching their limit.

And the idea that we should just get rid of catch and release fishing all together? Come on, man. Does anyone take such contention seriously?

At any rate, the point here is that we all share some responsibility. I’ve learned the hard way that figure-pointing, while claiming you’re innocent, does nothing but aggravate people, particularly those decision-makers you really don’t want to annoy.

We are all hunters in some sense. We all kill things, whether intentionally or not. You want to be a real conservationist/preservationist? Then don’t fish. And for God’s sake, stop calling for a moratorium on striped bass. We’re not there yet, and hopefully we won’t be.

End-of-the-year conclusions

Despite the grind, this year rocked. Particularly the tuna season.

And the heartburn? Yeah, it was considerably worse, and I hold no illusions that it will get better. I’m almost sure it’s because I have a front row seat to all of this.

And because I can’t help but give a crap – about the ocean, about the fishery, about what happens to it in the near and long term, no matter how disrupting, or time consuming or just outright absurd it is, I can’t just disconnect, and that jams me up on a regular basis. For sure, it sometimes makes me less than a tolerable person, and I probably need to work on that this year.

Ollie, Capt. John McMurray's Son

Ollie, Capt. John McMurray’s Son

Don’t for a minute think I’m making myself out to be a martyr in any of this, or that I’m doing all this out of some sort of do-good, benign sense of right-and-wrong. I am in this because I utilize this resource. I often kill things that swim, or just stick hooks in them and pull them to the boat for fun, or for other people’s fun, before releasing them. The truth is that I need healthy and abundant marine resources to do that. I am no preservationist. I am a committed conservationist, for myself… for others like me, for my son.

And in no way am I alone. And I take solace in that. There’s a core group fighters like me. Some in the fishing business, and some that just care, a lot. I suspect that they often have the same sense of unrest that I have. And it is very clear that there are hordes of folks, likely the majority, who are on my side, our side.

That said, this year, the competing uses, competing opinions and competing positions seemed to have been more polarized and more isolated than ever. I blame that on social media more than anything. People rarely talk in person anymore. Much easier to surround yourself with likeminded people and throw stones from behind a device. Don’t isolate yourself and think that you and your friends are the only righteous fishermen out there. And don’t think for a minute that you’re always 100% right in your assumptions, and that your fishing is without impact. Spend enough time around this stuff, and you’ll find out pretty quickly that’s not the case. There are some folks who realize there’s more than one side to things, but many more who do not. If it’s your way or the highway, well then forget contributing anything useful to the management process.

Haters are gonna hate. Social media is full of internet tough-guys who just want to get their “likes.” Know that if you’re getting beat up on social media, you’re probably doing something meaningful. Laugh off the silly, uninformed, often malicious comments and move on. There are some folks who I disagree with a lot, but are meaningful contributors to the debate. It should be pretty obvious that social media gangsters are NOT part of that crowd, and are generally ignored by those folks that actually matter.

In the end

Yes, there were bright lights this year – small and sometimes big wins – and yes, my charter business kinda crushed it.
But admittedly, my perception of things remains less than optimistic.

That said, I know for certain that some marine resources are resilient. History has proven more than once that when there’s political will, and good decisions are made, things come back, sometimes from the brink. And I know that I am, that we are, resilient. And I know that we can and do influence decisions if we engage often, and play within the system. There were numerous examples of that just last year.

While I might tell you we’re all screwed over a beer or two, I do believe, deep down, we can have a future, and I hope to God, we will have one.

Because I need it, not just so I can continue to run this business, but because it’s who I am.

Perhaps one day it’ll make my son who he is…

As I’ve said here before. I have saltwater in my veins, and I am “From the Sea.”

And I can’t just sit by.

If you care… Neither can you.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

16 comments on “Another Year On The Water… And Off It

  1. Excellent article. Thanks for the work that you do staying on top of fishery issues and trying to educate. There are a lot of like minded fishermen out there that feel the same way as you.

  2. Thanks for writing. I’m not sure I know who the extremists are who would do that but it’s too bad that they are out there and all the more important that you’re doing what you do. Keep it up!

  3. Hope to see you at the Tuesday MRAC meeting John as striped bass and a number of important items are on the agenda. I will save you a seat right next to me and we can talk about your blog when we have a few spare moments…

  4. Pingback: 2019:ANOTHER YEAR ON THE WATER… AND OFF IT – One More Cast Light Tackle Charters Charters

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