It’s not hyperbole to say that most members of San Diego’s sport fishing fleet feared their industry would be flooded with water as the boating businesses sank.
Emissions standards proposed by the California Air Resources Board, pushing technology that doesn’t exist for their class of ships, impossible retrofits and claims that ticket increases could pay for new multimillion-dollar boats prompted the group to rush for financial life jackets.
The 18-month struggle for survival has threatened retirement nest eggs and the ability to pass generational businesses from parents to children.
Then something incredible happened, in the middle of our divided days.
The compromise happened. Reason and logic happened. Good old common sense happened. A face-to-face meeting this month sparked a massive state board pivot, creating the only thing the industry wanted – a real chance.
“These are the quintessential small businesses, family-owned stores,” said Frank Ursitti, owner of H&M Landing in San Diego. “It was breathtaking many times throughout this.”
To simplify things, think of this as the downfall of working relationships between owners and players during the MLB lockdown. It started with entrenched positions separated by the equivalent of the Australian outback.
The initial prospects of meeting in the middle seemed impossible.
CARB planned to require something called Tier 4 engines, powering equipment that is not yet available for the region’s class of boats. The state group argued that the technology would catch up with the mapped timeline.
Alternatives, it was argued, included replacing all boats in the fleet when it became clear that existing vessels could not handle the larger engines and a tool called a diesel particulate filter which was causing problems of security.
One party said the price increases could cover the costs. The other side retaliated with puzzled looks.
“Initially they said replacing the vessel would cost $1.2 million,” Ursitti said. “Then they increased it up to $2 million. We went to a boat builder and the actual number is double and almost triple.
“They figured we could raise prices 18-24% to offset the cost of a new build. We took sample boats, looked at operating costs, profit margins, asked an expert -accountant to look at them and give them to an industry economist. It was really 97-196 percent.
Another debate over the data concerned how often boats actually operate in California’s regulated waters, which impacts coastal communities. The council said the fleet produced emissions in this area 83% of the time.
Sportfishing groups worked with an operator who reviewed logs for the past five years indicating that the operational level was 17% for his boat. The vast majority of vessels fish outside of regulated waters, especially those targeting desirable tuna.
“They’re not in California (in the waters) except to leave and come back,” Franke said.
Franke said his group realized they needed to do their research to address CARB’s claims. They hired a CPA, an engineering firm, lobbyists and more. There was even a trip to the state of San Diego to recruit a mathematician.
“It’s stuff like that that really grounded him,” Ursitti said.
Understand, however, that Ursitti is grateful beyond words. Meeting CARB members in person allowed fleet representatives to provide a hands-on visit, while creating a more comfortable and organic dialogue.
Goodbye, Zoom video and conference calls. Hello, true understanding.
A week after the site visit, CARB came back with a proposal for Tier 3 engines. The fleet jumped on the suggestion, as this is what the group has been working towards for over two decades.
The state council is expected to push the plan forward in a vote on Thursday.
“Some think it’s a dirty industry,” said Ken Franke, president of the San Diego-based Sportfishing Association of California. “We have been proactively installing and upgrading engines since 1998.
“Of the 193 commercial passenger fishing boats inspected by the Coast Guard in California, more than half are already Tier 3 engines. The other half are on the way to Tier 3 engines.”
This is code for: We can do this.
“I never thought I would see it,” he said.
There is more that is potentially saved. Educational programs. Veterans Programs. Affordable recreational opportunities. Economic generators ranging from hotels, restaurants and a range of tangential expenses to approximately 450,000 sport fishing customers expected this summer in San Diego County alone.
“There is a future now,” Ursitti said. “There were times when it was very questionable.”
Massive stakes compelled Franke and those involved to attempt something unprecedented by bringing together the entire state fishing fleet. Along the coast, lawmakers, city councils and local chambers of commerce have stepped up the pressure.
In the end, standing shoulder to shoulder planted a bow on a mutual victory.
Talking about something is one thing. Seeing it and feeling it is another.
“The management staff arrived, boots on the ground, and we talked for over four hours,” Ursitti said. “We really had the opportunity to demonstrate the challenges and show the differences and diversity of our fleet.
“Listening to a boat owner who had his life’s savings on the line and was about to lose everything if this rule had been passed as written was impactful. I think they really recognized that who is at stake.
“That was the turning point.”
The sighs of relief emanating from the marinas could be heard in Sacramento.
“They said they wanted to be partners, do things with people, not for people,” Franke said.
It will certainly float a lot of boats.