Mon, Aug 6, 2012
Jaclyn LoBello went fishing for the first time this summer. She chose to test her luck as an angler aboard one of Sheepshead Bay’s recreational fishing boats, which she had found through a deal on the popular coupon website, LivingSocial. Four hours later, she debarked from the Sea Queen VII empty-handed with her boyfriend, who managed to snag one fluke before returning home to Mill Basin.
“The LivingSocial deal first made me think, ‘Well, if I don’t catch anything, at least I didn’t pay too much for it,’” LoBello, 27, said after her trip. To be precise, she paid $35 instead of the usual $70 for both her and her boyfriend. “Catching something isn’t everything,” she continued, “but the overall experience is what is making me go again.”
LoBello is a dream customer for Sheepshead Bay fishermen, who have turned to coupon websites like LivingSocial and Groupon out of desperation for more business. She already booked her second trip aboard the Sea Queen VII, but used a different coupon website, Zozi.
Sheepshead Bay’s recreational charter-fishing industry is steadily dwindling, and according to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the decline has been more pronounced here than in any other fishing community in the state.
“It was a fishing village here when I was a kid,” said Dave Paris, 61, owner of the Captain Dave II fishing boat, who has been on the docks at Emmons Avenue for 51 years. “It’s over.”
In its heyday just a few decades ago, Sheepshead Bay’s ten docks were home to more than five boats each, but now a dock only has one or two, or none at all. After a long day out on the water, the fishermen went to a bar appropriately named Captain Walter’s, but it has been replaced by European-inspired restaurants and nightclubs. Fishermen are lucky if they get a post-work drink at all these days, since most of them hold several jobs to make ends meet, trying to preserve this industry that’s slowly fading into the past.
The Internet’s effect on the party boats can be seen walking up and down the pier. Only eight boats sit at the docks – a significant reduction from what was once a fleet of 48 – and those that offer coupons have eager customers aboard, while others call endlessly at the edge of the street, hoping to make the minimum quota of passengers to sail.
The biggest and shiniest boat of them all sits at the dock, empty. Michael Ardolino, 29, mans the Brooklyn VI, a boat that has been around in one way or another since the 1920’s. He sits in the captain’s chair, listening to the horns of a neighboring boat, the Sea Queen VII, as it takes off on clear and sunny Sunday with what looks to be a crowded deck.
“That’s one of those Groupon boats,” he says, as he looks out the window. The Brooklyn VI doesn’t offer coupons and charges $60 a trip. He begins flipping through his night log, a record of how many passengers he sailed with each night. He realizes he has left the dock many times with fewer than 18 customers, the number he needs to break even. He shakes his head. “Twelve, then 39, and then 14. Then 85. Make it on one day. Lose it the next. Turning people away is bad business.”
Ardolino would call Paris’ Captain Dave II a Groupon boat, but that’s a fact that Paris seems to resent. He allowed coupon deals on the Captain Dave II through the website Travelzoo, but did so only after seeing that his regular customers were no longer coming on his trips. They were choosing boats that offered coupons regularly instead, such as the Marilyn Jean and the Sea Queen VII. He says he had no choice, with customers who’ve come to expect the cheaper prices all the time.
A recent coupon deal on LivingSocial offered a fishing trip aboard the Golden Sunshine. It advertised the trip as a $70 dollar value for $35 through their service. More than 758 were purchased two days before the deal ended. The Bullet Fleet, another boat that frequently offers coupons, had a Groupon deal in August 2011 for $29, advertised as a $60 value. More than 1,000 were bought.
“It’s lowering everything down,” Paris said. “We’re not making any money.”
These steep discounts do come at a price. LoBello’s trip gave the Sea Queen VII a profit of around $17.50, which amounts out to less than $9 per person after splitting half the revenue with the coupon company, LivingSocial. Those tiny profits, only a quarter of the regular ticket price, don’t make it worth it for any boat to leave the dock, with the overhead costs of gasoline, bait, crew, and docking insurance. Paris estimates gasoline alone costs him about $300 every time he leaves the pier.
Even a crew member on the Sea Queen VII, Kyle Kaltenmeyer, admits that the coupons are really hurting business. His boat is consistently pulling out of the docks with customers, but for a dramatically reduced price.
Sheepshead Bay’s fishing industry once was thriving, with customers left behind at the docks on every trip after arriving too late to secure a coveted seat. This situation has changed for several reasons. Joe Buonocore, an employee at Bernie’s Bait and Tackle, which has been around for 60 years, says that tight regulations on the size and amount of fish have deterred customers from spending the $50 to $60 it takes to go out on a fishing boat, since the slim chance of catching fish within the regulations isn’t enough for most people to justify spending that amount of money.
Buonocre says Sheepshead Bay residents are still going fishing, but they’re fishing from the shore instead. Toilk Satonkin and his nine-year-old son Michael are frequent visitors to the Knapp Street seawall, a popular fishing spot hidden down an alley near Plumb Beach. Toilk Satonkin, an immigrant from Azerbaijan, takes his son fishing every Saturday and Sunday, but never to the fishing boats along Emmons Avenue. He says that the fishing boats are too expensive. Some fishermen blame these new residents from the former Soviet Bloc as a cause of the decline, since they choose to fish from the shore for free, rather than spend money to do the same thing from a boat.
Another Sheepshead Bay resident and avid fisherman, Richie Ramuseen, 27, says he “hangs out” at Stella Maris Bait and Tackle and blames the decline on the slightly younger generation, which doesn’t carry on the fishing tradition in favor of staying indoors on the computer or playing video games. The shop’s own 19-year-old employee, Danny Kogao, says he doesn’t care much to go fishing. Brooklyn VI’s owner has two teenage sons, also uninterested by it.
Many of the fishermen may partly blame the Internet for the downfall, but it’s also the last hope for the few boats left.
Alanna Klaman, 27, a lifelong Sheepshead Bay fisherwoman, is launching a new party boat, Lady Ash, later this summer. She’s more optimistic about the coupons than some of the other fishermen, and says that her new boat will be very Internet-based, with a website and lots of advertising.
“It’s changing because they aren’t coming down here and choosing which boat based on who gives the best deal,” said Klaman as she stood in a black sundress near her boat. “They already bought those tickets. They know what boat they’re going on.”
Then she summed up the dilemma that’s leaving Sheepshead Bay fishermen undecided on how to handle the online coupon craze:
“It’s less money but more people than we’ve had in a long time.”
Tags: bernie's bait and tackle, Brooklyn, brooklyn VI, bullet fleet, captain dave, charter boats, coupons, Fishing, groupon, living social, marilyn jean, New York, online coupons, party boats, sea queen, Sheepshead Bay, South Brooklyn, stella maris, travelzoo