Friday, June 1 – Fishing Industry Hoping For Best With Rising Fuel Prices

OCEAN CITY – Soaring gasoline prices at the pumps certainly did not curtail the number of visitors to the resort last weekend, as evidenced by the largest estimated Memorial Day crowd in over 10 years, but the rising cost of fuel in the area marinas could start having an impact on what the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Ocean City do when they get to the resort.

Gasoline prices are flirting with the $3 per gallon mark on the streets, but the time-honored wisdom is the resort does well in times of high gas prices because an estimated one-third of the nation’s population lives within a six-hour drive of Ocean City. However, rising fuel prices could have a profound effect on the fishing and boating activities expected to flood the resort in the coming weeks.

Regardless of whether it’s a small boat with gasoline-powered outboard engines or a 60-foot sportfishing boat with gas-guzzling inboard diesels, it’s going to cost much more to enjoy the water this summer. Rising fuel costs have not forced most charter fishing boats to adjust their prices just yet, but if the price at the pumps continues to nudge upward, the increased expense could be passed along to the consumers.

“It’s going to affect us and it has already,” said Captain Luke Blume of the “Press Time.” “Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed. So far, the cost of diesel is holding steady and many of us haven’t had to resort to raising our prices yet.”

Charter captains around the resort area are keeping a close eye on the cost of fuel and the potential impact on their bottom line. While the price has not jumped to the point where charter captains have raised their base rates, many have reserved the right to tack on a fuel surcharge on trips offshore if the prices continue to climb.

It’s a last ditch measure most captains and boat owners are hoping to avoid, according to Captain Mark Sampson of the “Fish Finder.” Sampson is also director of the annual Ocean City Shark Tournament coming up later this month.

“It is a big concern,” he said. “At this point in the season, most of the boats have set their charter prices and deposits have been taken. The last thing we want to do when the anglers hit the dock is hit them up with another charge for fuel.”

Sampson said many of the charter captains have reserved the right to tack on a fuel surcharge if the prices climb to high. Some will absorb the cost while others may be forced to charge the clients more in order to turn a profit, or at least, avoid taking a loss on a trip.

“If fuel prices jump, somebody has to pay that,” he said. “Some will hold prices the same and just take it on the chin, while others have reserved the right to add a surcharge if prices take a big jump. My boat is not a monster and I can absorb some of that without too much discomfort, but others might not have that luxury.”

Blume said he is in a similar situation with the “Press Time” because the owner of the boat is less concerned with the bottom line than many other boats in the marinas around the resort area.

“We’re pretty lucky in that sense because the owner is not trying to make a lot of money with the charter business,” he said. “The nice thing is the cost of diesel is not directly linked to the cost of gasoline. It has gone up, but not at the same rate as gas at the pumps.”

Diesel prices in the marinas have climbed somewhat compared to the end of last year. The typical price of diesel used to fuel the big offshore boats is in the $2.60 to $3 range, which puts it on about the same level as what motorists are paying for gasoline at the pumps. However, it is still higher than what it was at the end of the last fishing season, forcing many captains to consider passing the increase along to charters.

“I’ve told most of my charters they could be hit with a $50 or $100 surcharge if the cost goes up much higher,” said Blume. “We’re trying to avoid doing that at all cost, but we told everybody up front that day could be coming.”

Most of the big offshore charter boats have 300-500 gallon fuel tanks, which at $3 per gallon can add as much as $900 to $1,500 to the cost of a trip. With most cost of most charters ranging from around $1,000 to $1,500, depending on the boat, the length of the trip and the species being targeted, much of the money taken in is absorbed by the cost of fueling the boat before other expenses such as paying the captain and mate, bait, boat slip rental fees, insurance and other costs are even factored in.

Nonetheless, even though it is early in the season and the warm water hasn’t moved into the nearby canyons off the coast of Ocean City yet, many boats fishing out of the marinas around the resort are going 120-plus miles to find game fish such as shark, tuna and dolphin. Sampson said the cost of fuel alone has kept many of the local captains closer to home in the early part of the season.

“I can’t fathom making a trip like that with the fuel prices where they are, but that’s a testimony to the resolve of fishermen,” he said. “That highlights the lengths they will go to find fish. They will find a way.”

Sampson said anglers would likely adjust their habits to get the most bang for their fishing buck.

“Some will take more inshore trips, or fish from headboats, or the bridge or the beaches,” he said. “Some that used to go offshore six times a year might cut back to two times a year and make more inshore trips or look for other fishing alternatives.”