by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood New Editor
Located near the Intracoastal Canal in the heart of Gulf’s busiest oil and gas port, Gulf Seafood Institute’s (GSI) new founding member Steve Tomeny operates the last large boat of a once thriving charter for hire recreational industry.
Face time on Capitol Hill is important for Tomeny, who has been making regular trips to D.C. for more than seven years. “If you are not getting in front of the right people your opinions are not getting heard,” he said. “That is definitely GSI’s strength. Because GSI represents a wide spectrum of interests, the organization is not pigeon holed. When GSI calls, Capitol Hill listens.”
On his first trip to the Hill with GSI, he was impressed with the large number of Congressional staff members he met allowing him the opportunity to have a voice on important issues.
Port Fourchon, La, is one of the busiest oilfield ports in the Gulf with around the clock traffic. Close by sits the big shrimp fleet that runs out of Leeville, once the leading red snapper landing dock in the Gulf. Steve Tomeny Charters is the last large boat charter operator out of the state’s southeastern port.
“What used to be a thriving charter industry has dwindled,” Tomeny explained sitting in a Mississippi hotel coffee shop waiting for the start of a Gulf Council meeting. Tomeny and his largest competitor each used to operate four 65’ boats. His competition has long ago faded away, leaving him with the sole large boat in the area.
He is not the area’s only charter operator. An outboard fleet carrying up to six fishermen now surround him. These smaller, high-speed boats are uninspected vessels, as opposed to his larger boat inspected regularly by the Coast Guard.
Born in Baton Rouge and graduating from Louisiana State University, Tomeny started his career on the water as a deckhand on charter boats in the early 1970’s. Eventually he built a red snapper charter business that started as a part time venture on weekends and holidays. He fully committed to the Gulf waters when he built his first 65’ charter boat that held 40 fishermen.
Fitting a Niche
When the Gulf Red Snapper season was yearlong, he was booking a year out. Having a business historically built on the popular Gulf fish, Tomeny is reshaping that business to attract a new customer base. The game plan is starting to work.
“The old guys that were used to catching a lot of snapper are being thinned out,” said the charter for hire captain. “ We have had to change our marketing approach targeting younger fishermen, as well as companies that want to offer a trip to employees or customers.”
Today his business is built around small companies taking employees out for a day of fishing, bachelor or bachelorette parties and industrial plants offering the trip as a safety or performance reward. Having the large boat is a definite advantage over the six passenger competitors. “These are groups that are looking to go fishing without having to split up the party onto a bunch of smaller boats,” he said.
At his company’s peak, he operated four large boats with captains and employed 15 people. In the winter when weather turned cold and the charter business dwindled, he would fish commercially.
Tomeny bought quota permits in the late 90’s and says the commercial side of Gulf Red Snapper is doing really well – the fishery continues to rebound.
“Just like the sports guys today, when I started in the business the prevailing feeling was leave red snapper and us alone and everything will be ok,” said the new GSI member. “When the crackdown finally came, it was not good for my business, but the fish have come back.”
Red Snapper Frustration
Red snapper is a fish easy to catch, and they are everywhere. According to the Louisiana captain, if you are out over 15 miles and targeting a different fish the likelihood is that you are going to catch red snapper. “Part of the frustration is that hey, I am here, the snapper is on the boat and I want to keep them. This is the disconnect for recreational fisherman,” he said.
Tomeny says it is important for recreational fisherman to get out of the “filling your freezer mode”. He is still in the process of finding the proper marketing of catch and release, but has yet figured a way to sell it properly to clientele. The problem of release mortality also arises.
His Bayou state charter now targets amberjack, mangrove snappers and other fish requiring more fishing skill and a good crew. These species are harder to catch,require more work, and effect bookings. “The smiles are often not as big at the end of the day,” he said.
Louisiana does not see the hundreds and hundreds of recreational boats like Florida and Alabama, a fact that recreational fishermen in the state often forget.
“Our recreational fishermen tend to be isolationists, failing to take into account the large Alabama and Florida recreational fleets. I live in the “Kingdom of Louisiana” and I don’t care what goes on elsewhere,” he said. “It is often hard for fishermen to realize the Gulf is one pond, and we are managing it as one pond.”
Since the early 1990’s Tomeny’s boats have been part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Head Boat Survey, turning in catch numbers and landing figures. The agency’s survey has been ongoing since the 1970’s with the landed fish randomly weighed and measured.
“We’ve had a lot of data coming off of my boats for a long time,” he said. “Electronic data collection is definitely the future for all recreational fishing. It will tell you who are fishing, who are not fishing and with vessel monitoring (VMS) on board, if a boat leaves the dock.”
Commercial fishermen, the first to implement electronic monitoring, at first kicked and screamed about the “big brother” aspect, but doom and gloom hasn’t appeared and the positives outweigh the negatives, according to Tomeny.
He says the system currently installed on his vessel is easy to operate. The application he uses is similar to iSnapper and is done off a cell phone or iPad. “For an entire day of fishing, recording takes approximately five minutes at the most,” according to the Louisiana native.
The app asks such questions as: date, number of fishermen, specific number of catches for each fishery, how many fish were kept, how many were released. “There is a big rolling list of fish, and “favorites” can be set for regularly caught fish.
“If you catch some oddball fish you have to scroll through the list to find it. It’s not hard. I find that with the app you just tend to do it more than with paper,” he explained.
The Port Fourchon charter captain is pushing for a full VMS system with electronic logbooks because without VMS it is impossible to verify if a boat left the dock.
At recent red snapper public hearings, fishermen squalled that there is no data and that the current data is inaccurate because NOAA did it.
“I get a little reactionary to those statements because I have been filling out paperwork on every trip for more than 25 years,” said Tomeny. “NOAA can tell you the average weight of a snapper landed at Steve Tomeny’s dock, how many fish I caught and how many I released. There is a lot of accurate data available.”
Tomeny got interested in GSI while attending Gulf Council meetings.
“After talking to GSI’s executive director Margret Henderson, and seeing how involved it is at the Council level, I got interested in joining GSI because of the broad focus,” said the fisherman who sits on both the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance and the Charter Fisherman’s Association boards. “Those groups are very narrow in focus. GSI impressed me because it allows me to wear a broader hat, especially on visits to Capitol Hill.”
He sees the Gulf is a complex ecosystem represented by groups interested in their own little niche. For him, GSI is uniquely positioned to take these groups out of those niches and give them a voice in big picture solutions for the Gulf of Mexico and its seafood community.
Coastal restoration is an important topic where groups can unite. “Where I live down in Port Fourchon, you can see the land swooshing away almost daily. All Restore Act funds Louisiana will receive have been dedicated to coastal restoration, affecting the livelihoods of oystermen and shrimpers. Even though my operations are 15-miles offshore, we all have to work together to ensure the livelihoods of other fishermen, this is really important stuff,” he said.
Being a regular visitor to D.C. has put him in the spotlight. Recently he joined former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Christopher Costello of the University of California Santa Barbara, Lee Crockett the director of U.S. Oceans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, John Mimikakis the associate vice president of Oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund and John Pappalardo the executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance as a speaker at the Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project forum to explore opportunities for improving the economic prosperity and long-term sustainability of the U.S. fishing industry.
“You never know what seeds you are laying when you go to Washington, but when problems pop up and a Congressional aide calls for your opinion, you know that the trip was successful,” he said. “Those calls are results of face time and credibility in DC – something GSI provides.”