Fuel costs hurt charter and commercial fishing

In the so-called “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” there's a saying among anglers: Even during a depression, a man has money for beer and fishing.

Rising fuel costs and general economic malaise, however, are putting that mantra to the test in the Florida Keys and elsewhere where charter boat fishing brings in millions of dollars. Across the country, boat captains are feeling the pinch in recreational and commercial fishing.

As of Tuesday, the average cost for a gallon of diesel was near $4.80, according to AAA. That's up from an average of about $2.90 a gallon a year ago.

That means boat captains are having to raise prices or add hefty fuel surcharges to fees that before this season were already around $800 to $1,500 for a full day.

Some in the charter fishing industry estimate that business is off anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent because customers can't afford the added costs.

“Some guys are just sitting on the docks waiting for business, and it ain't happening,” said Steve Leopold, president of the Islamorada Charter Boat Association. “There's people who come down and don't even ask the price of my charters. Then there's people who … say, ‘Wow, can you cut me a break?' I say, ‘If you bring your own fuel.'”

On a recent sunny afternoon at Whale Harbor Marina in the Florida Keys, Chris Adams, 41, had just returned from a half-day charter trip.

“We probably would have spent the whole day out, but it would have been $400 more,” Adams said. His half-day trip this year cost $800, about what a full day cost last year.

Pensacola Charter Boat Association president Paul Redman said he charged customers $1,200 for a recent six-hour trip on the water, but $500 for fuel, $100 for bait and tackle, and $100 for his deckhand meant his profit was a mere $300. Five years ago, it would have topped $800.

“It's just about not worth doing it anymore,” Redman said.

Commercial and charter fishing industry representatives from around the country plan to meet with members of Congress today in Washington, seeking financial relief to help offset losses.

The nation's commercial fishing fleet is also taking a hit as many fishermen can't bring in enough added catch to keep profits ahead of fuel costs, said Sean McKeon, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association. The commercial fishing industry's catch was worth about $40 billion in 2006.