I just moved from an inland, sea-kayaker-scarce area to a coastal location. Maybe it's stupid of me, but if there aren't others to go with, I just go by myself. That's true regardless whether it's paddling, biking, hiking, or whatever. I make sure the expected conditions are within my abilities, with a extra-healthy margin of safety. Sure, if there was a regular group of skilled paddlers, I could push the edges more. But it's better to go out and use extra caution than to not go at all.
I've attended 3 symposia, mainly because it's an especially good event for those people who do not live near the sea. I look at them as opportunities to find out more about what I need to learn, rather than as the place/time to go into those things in depth. The ones I've gone to have allowed me to learn from some of those "name" instructors as well as less-well-known ones. At one of them, the light really came on as to how important navigation was for ocean paddling. All the previous reading and "being told" didn't have the impact that a simple demonstration did.
Now, what you're getting at is higher-level stuff, but I think the basic question still applies. Are skilled paddlers abandoning just-going-paddling for pay opportunities? At least, I think that's what you asked. Regardless whether or not they are, it won't keep me from going paddling. The scenario you describe sounds like the best-skilled paddlers are only paddling with each other or helping "lower" paddlers for money only. I have a hard time believing that's true in general.
Bent Shaft Canoe Paddles
PFD's (Life Jackets)
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