High Fuel Costs Hurt East Coast Charter Businesses

Some East Coast charter captains see 30% drop in business due to high fuel costs
Reprinted with permission from www.seafood.com 

SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star] Norfolk, VA – June 2, 2008 By Connie Sage

In the first two months of this year, the number of for-hire trips by North Carolina’s 700 charter, guide and head boats dropped 30 percent, from 4,300 trips to 3,000, compared with last year, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

The six sun burned men stood together on the pier at Hatteras Harbor Marina and smiled as charter boat captain Rom Whitaker snapped their photo.

After hooking a 350-pound marlin off Whitaker’s 53-foot sport- fishing boat, the Release, it didn’t matter to them that they had to pay more to fish.

‘There’s no consideration of gas when you’re having fun,’ said Steve Ward of Northern Virginia.

Not every angler feels the same way.

In the first two months of the year, the number of for-hire trips by North Carolina’s 700 charter, guide and head boats dropped 30 percent, from 4,300 trips to 3,000, compared with last year, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

‘It was a one-two punch,’ said Doug Munford, a state biologist who coordinates data collection in Washington, N.C.

Stripers and bluefin tuna were not as plentiful earlier this year, he said, ‘and we’re probably not yet witnessing the impact of gasoline prices.’ Those numbers won’t be available until mid- summer.

Charter boat captains already know how bad it is.

‘Increased fuel costs are killing us,’ said Steve Richardson, captain of both the Back Lash and the Canyon Express. Business is off by at least 35 percent, he said.

Prices for fuel last week ranged from $4.49 to $4.60 a gallon for diesel. That’s 35 percent higher than in April and nearly double the price from a year ago.

It can cost as much as $2,000 a day or more just for fuel, depending on the size and speed of a charter boat and the time it takes to reach prime Outer Banks or Virginia Beach fishing areas.

Even though only a portion of the $200 to $400 in additional fuel costs per trip is being passed along to charter boat customers, fewer anglers are signing on, and boat owners are suffering.

‘Nobody’s calling,’ Richardson said. ‘No one wants to spend the money.’

This time last year, his charter prices out of Virginia Beach were $1,450 a day, compared with $1,900 this year; out of Hatteras, it was $1,100 , compared with $1,700 now.

Whitaker charged $1,250 to charter the Release last year, compared with $1,400 this season ‘all because of fuel.’

‘We’re working just as hard or harder but making less money and barely covering the cost,’ he said.

Mike Romeo, who owns the Gannet , a 46-foot custom Carolina sport- fishing boat in Hatteras, said his business is off by 50 percent – ‘the wors t we’ve ever seen it.’

Fuel prices historically creep up, Romeo pointed out, ‘but doggone, all of a sudden it was ‘bam!’ At this point, we’re just hanging on.’

His charter rates have climbed from $1,300 to $1,650 in a year. If rates continue to increase, charter boats could price themselves out of the business, he said.

‘On the other hand, we can’t go for free,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s in the same boat.’

Those customers willing to pay more aren’t complaining, said Aaron Midgett, assistant manager of Teach’s Lair Marina in Hatteras. ‘They understand for the most part,’ he said.

‘The person who can pay $1,700, $1,800 or $1,900 for an offshore trip – it doesn’t affect them,’ said John Crowling, general manager of the Virginia Beach Fishing Center at Rudee Inlet. Also, they’re usually splitting the cost with five other anglers.

Ben and Ivy Carey of Virginia Beach come to Hatteras a couple of times a year to charter a boat with friends. Last week they hooked two blue marlins, each weighing about 400 pounds, off Whitaker’s boat.

‘The cost of fuel is an annoyance but not altering our lifestyle significantly,’ said Carey, a physician. ‘We’re fortunate we can afford it.’

So can Dan Grose of Frederick, Md., who for the third year was fishing on Mike Warren’s 48-foot Hatteras Blue out of Hatteras Harbor.

Warren’s price didn’t increase that much, said Grose, an archaeologist. ‘Quite frankly, I can afford it. I’m coming back in September.’

Upper-income anglers are able to foot higher bills, but not the blue-collar guy, said Whitaker. ‘They don’t have to go fishing,’ he said. ‘They have to eat and get to work, not fish.’

After running charters for 33 years, Sam Parker is trying to sell his 40-foot Carolina boat, the Scorpio, that he keeps at Wachapreague Seaside Marina on the Eastern Shore.

Because of gas prices, Wachapreague is like a ghost town, he said.

The nail in the coffin was a tightened Virginia regulation limiting flounder to at least 19 inches this year.

Dave Wentling, captain of the Instigator, a 57-foot Carolina based in Hatteras and Ocean City, Md., said he doesn’t know how much more people will pay to go out on charter boats.

‘At some point they’ll say, ‘Let’s buy a bucket of crabs, stay home and drink beer.’ ‘

John Sackton, Editor And Publisher
Seafood.com News 1-781-861-1441
Email comments to jsackton@seafood.com


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