Home Opinion Greg Blass From shrinking navigable waterways to scarce repair technicians, local marine industry faces...

From shrinking navigable waterways to scarce repair technicians, local marine industry faces existential challenges

File photo: Peter Blasl

When we talk of the plight of small business here on Long Island, let’s consider a staple in our local economy, what we will call the marine industry. There’s much to find in this industry’s favor. But as with all small business, mounting challenges make for a darkening horizon. Fortunately, some promising moves are afoot, and are worth examining.

In Suffolk County alone, more than 980 miles of shoreline, and over 300 bodies of water offer an ideal backdrop for our marine industry. Recreational fishing and boating connect ever so closely to tourism, one of the East End’s economic mainstays. According to the Suffolk County Office of Economic Development, the marine industry alone generates nearly $1.6 billion annually, and employs full-time more than 7,000 workers. This figure more than doubles during the boating season.

And that brings us to the marinas. Interestingly, these are by far mostly “Mom & Pop” operations. Even more interestingly, the majority of the boat owners our marinas serve is made up of middle class families. A difficult figure to nail down is exactly how many private marinas we have in all of Suffolk County, but reliable estimates are in the 200-range.

In October of 2012, Storm Sandy was an unprecedented hit for the marine industry, which has yet to fully rebound. Recovery monies in the form of insurance and government aid, and even private funds, were channeled to so much else that only a few of the recreational boats that were lost were replaced.

With the destruction of Sandy, a task force of marine businesses wisely fought to join the state’s Government Office of Storm Recovery. Some locals who worked in this effort found a remarkable bias among state officials against Long Island’s boating community, a place the state agencies regarded as a land of yachts and wealthy commodores. Convincing these officials of Suffolk’s far more down-to-earth recreational boating and fishing profile was a major effort, but it paid off. Suffolk’s East End marinas alone received $24 million in disaster aid from FEMA and N.Y. State sources, the kind of recognition up till then usually reserved for Nassau County’s needs.

Issues for the industry didn’t start with that superstorm. Years before Sandy, starting in 2006 up to 2016, registrations for vessels with motors dropped 20 percent, according to Newsday. Marine industry leaders tell of land developers converting some marinas into other waterfront uses. No new marinas are being built or even planned.

Over the years, rising gasoline prices can make the cost of a day on the boat almost unaffordable. One can notice a sharp drop in local boating right now with the currently spiking gas prices. Another continuing problem is the dredging of waterways, which is increasingly impossible owing to environmental impacts, many only recently understood. So the buildup of sand and sediment, called shoaling, makes an ever-growing number of channels and waterways less navigable. One indicator of the scope of the problem is how maritime GPS cannot keep up with the changes from year to year.

And just as with the agricultural and commercial fishing industries, skilled technical workers to serve recreational boating are fewer and fewer in number. Many boat owners and operators wait months for repairs. Only a handful of small programs on Long Island, such as Western Suffolk BOCES, provide any training in this field. Chalk this up to the disappearance of virtually all technical courses in our high schools – another casualty of public education’s insistence that everyone should be on track for a college degree and the ever-increasing debt that goes with it, a boondoggle for the banks.

There is hope in the face of all this. The most recent calming of the waters comes with the Suffolk County Legislature’s creation of a Marine Industry Revitalization Advisory Council, sponsored by the presiding officer. It is envisioned as a clearinghouse for addressing many of these issues.

Working together will be marine industry executives, government officials, educational leaders, environmentalists and tourism advocates. With help from workforce development experts, training for technicians such as boat mechanics will be a priority. Unraveling red tape to keep waterways open is another goal. This new group will also count on technical assistance from state and federal agencies and a number of citizen-based, environmental organizations. Representatives of Cornell Cooperative Extension, the commercial fishing industry, Suffolk BOCES and county public works (dredging staff) will also be on board. There’s much potential here if they have the right leadership.

A good source for issues and trends in the marine industry is found at boatLI.org, maintained by an existing group, Long Island’s Association of Marine Industries (AMI), with 135 members made up of marina operators and related businesses. This organization holds the industry together, and maintains a real presence on the state level. They publish and distribute 12,000 AMI Boater’s Guides each year, in which they promote ecologically sound practices for marina and boat owners, right down to mapping out where to find pump-out stations.

AMI’s one shortcoming is their opposition to a proposed state law that would require a boat safety course for all motor boat operators. AMI believes it should only be mandatory for those born after 1995. But with 22 boating fatalities on Long Island last year, and with the shocking risks routinely taken especially by jet ski drivers, clearly AMI might reconsider their position. Everyone needs instruction in safety and the “rules of the road” for boating of any kind.

Nor is the marine industry limited to motor boating. Consider sailing lessons for kids as young as five to 18 years old (mattituckyachtclub.com). And then there’s kayaking – you can own/rent either of the two basic types: the sit-on-top, with its minimal “draft” into the water, thus the faster design, or the traditional, sit-inside kayak. Paddle boarding is another popular option. Our town recreation departments offer lessons for all of these. Wear a life preserver!

So if Long Island and our East End want to preserve our way of life, give our marine industry all the support it needs. And if you’re like most of us and don’t own a boat, most marinas offer rentals. Party boats for fishing can be a great family outing, likewise the tour boat with excursions from the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead. Give the kids and yourselves a break from the iPads, phones and other screen devices and enjoy our area’s natural magic. It is a blessing right there in front of us, yet too often hidden from our lives. And whose fault is that?

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg