Fuel costs keep fishermen at bay

High fuel prices have accomplished what rough weather and cheap imported seafood never could – keeping Sheldon Daniels' trawler fleet at the dock.

“I normally would have been shrimping for a month, but I can't catch enough to pay for the fuel,” Daniels, owner of William Smith Seafood in Beaufort, N.C., said last week. “I haven't gone at all.”

The soaring prices are hurting North Carolina's $82 million commercial fishing industry. Unlike recreational fishing captains, who can pass on a fuel surcharge to clients, many commercial fishermen are being squeezed by low dockside prices for catches and mounting fuel bills.

As of Tuesday, the statewide average price of a gallon of diesel was $4.73, according to AAA. That's up from $2.87 a year ago. Gasoline was selling for an average of $4.01 a gallon statewide, up from $2.88 a year ago.

Fishermen are getting more for some catches but most prices haven't kept pace with fuel costs. Many shrimpers, crabbers and gill netters are staying ashore. They'll go out when it's prime season for a particular species – mid-July for shrimp, for example – but exploratory runs are out.

“From Florida to Maine, I'm hearing 20 to 40 percent of the boats are tied to the dock every day,” said Sean McKeon, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association. “Nobody can go out and look for fish right now; it's having an enormous impact on us.”

McKeon estimated fuel costs have hiked commercial fishermen's costs by 10 percent. Trucking costs getting the catch to market also have soared, raising seafood prices in restaurants and retail fish markets. Retail prices likely will go higher but nobody knows when the increases will make it worth leaving the dock.

George Earp, a partner in Earp's Seafood Market in Raleigh, said prices for most fish are up 30 to 40 percent from the beginning of the year.

“All fish has gone up – flounder, croaker, trout – it had to,” Earp said. “But it hasn't gone up enough to offset their fuel costs.”

Jay Howard Robinson, owner of Beacon One Seafood in Varnamtown on the southern N.C. coast, estimated 40 or 50 trawlers in the Oak Island area that normally would be shrimping are still at the dock.

On the northern coast in Wanchese, Mikey Daniels isn't sending two 90-foot trawlers to Massachusetts to fish for cod, haddock and black bass off the Georges Banks. “It would take 1,500 gallons of diesel to get there,” said Daniels, owner of Wanchese Fish Co. “For $15,000 (in fuel costs) you've got to catch a lot of fish.”

Sneads Ferry waterman Larry Bolton sold his 50-foot steel shrimping trawler, the Miss Joanie, last year to avoid more expensive fill-ups.

“I lost $40,000 just to get rid of it,” said the Sneads Ferry fisherman, adding that captains of five nearby shrimp boats aren't leaving the dock because they can't afford fuel.

Statewide, the number of people with commercial fishing licenses has declined from 6,990 in 2000 to 6,053 last year, a 13 percent drop. Of those, there are about 4,500 active commercial fishermen, said Scott Crosson, an official with the N.C. Division of Fisheries.

Dozens of species are caught in state waters, and dockside prices for some - scallops, grouper, snapper, and mahimahi – are high enough to bring a profit after fuel bills are deducted. But wholesale prices of shrimp and crabs have increasingly been constrained by inexpensive imports. Crab prices are flat with last year and shrimpers today are getting less at the dock than 10 years ago, Crosson said.