Soaring Fuel Prices Worry Captains

Soaring Fuel Prices Worry Captains
Photo by Nick Denny

OCEAN CITY – While most are feeling the pain at the pump, perhaps no industry is taking a harder hit then the local fishing industry.

With the offshore recreational and charter fishing season essentially just getting underway, rising fuel costs, especially diesel, which is now pushing nearly $7 per gallon, is threatening to somewhat curtail what would otherwise be another remarkable season. The hike in fuel costs will likely result in fewer charters, long offshore trips converted to shorter inshore trips and increased costs for the captains and boat owners and higher costs for those willing to pony up and book a charter.

Ocean City Marlin Club President Ryan Freese said most of the charter boats in the resort’s fleet are adding fuel surcharges to their base rates to pass along some of the increased expense to the clients. But there is a ceiling for most for what they are willing to shell out for a charter fishing trip.

“The soaring fuel prices have affected our charter income even before the season has begun,” he said. “Yes, we have to increase our charter rates and add fuel surcharges, but that is not the only cause for cancellations.”

Freese said the pain at the pump to fill up the boats for a daily charter is only part of the equation.

“In most cases, people come to Ocean City to fish, but they also stay for the night, or weekend, or even a week,” he said. “The fuel to drive to Ocean City, the inflated food prices at restaurants due to inflation and increased hotel room charges are putting a huge hole in people’s pockets. It’s not only the charter prices that are scaring people away.”

Freese said most captains and anglers will find a way to fish despite the increases, but they will likely alter the frequency and their habits and typical trips.

“The recreational fishermen will still fish, but the full days will become shorter days and the offshore trips will become inshore trips,” he said. “Whether is recreational or charter, fishing is about spending time on the water and enjoying the sport. I don’t think fun will be the top speaking point this summer. I know it will be if we can afford to go.”

Freese said the soaring fuel prices could curtail some of the activity in the resort’s summer-long sportfishing tournament season.

“I should also mention the lack of participation in local tournaments,” he said. “I guess time will tell, but I think we will see a large decline in tournament numbers. We have already had boats from the south decide to stay south this summer due to this madness. It’s sad.”

Captain Austin Ensor agreed the rising fuel costs are threatening to put a damper on the summer season.

“Fuel is 200% higher than this time last year,” he said. “Charter fishermen cannot increase the price of the charter by 200%, so the only thing they can do is make less money. Charter fishermen have to increase prices as much as they can, and make less money per day.”

Ensor said his boat is also adding a fuel surcharge to the cost of a charter and explained the math.

“To combat the rising fuel prices, I have enacted a fuel surcharge when fuel is over $4 per gallon,” he said. “This means for every gallon we burn, the charter pays the difference in cost per gallon. For example, with fuel approaching $7, that would mean a surcharge of $3 per gallon.”

Ensor also explained the math for a typical charter to illustrate the point. With a base charter rate at $2,900, plus the fuel charge for an average 300 gallons burned per day, that adds potentially another $900. Add in the tip for the mate at around $500, the total cost for the day for a typical charter could soar to over $4,300, not including fish cleaning, and that is before a single beer or a sandwich is bought.

“Even with much higher pricing this year, I am making less money than last year per trip,” he said. “Fuel prices are hurting, if not slowly killing off, professional charter captains. The leadership of our country needs to become pro-fossil fuel, or many industries will perish. Diesel fuel runs the United States and its industries.”

Captain Wade Lober said the ultimate impact of the rising fuel costs on sportfishing this summer remains uncertain, but he predicted it might not be pretty.

“Fuel prices this year will be catastrophic to the sportfishing industry,” he said. “Some are saying by August we will be paying $10 per gallon at the dock. This type of fuel increase will impact every charter boat in Ocean City.”

Lober agreed there is a ceiling for most for what they are willing to pay for a charter, and the impact will send ripples through the resort’s other hospitality industries.

“The owners will try to pass the increase onto the clients, but there is only so much they can pay,” he said. “Seafood costs will go through the roof because of the cost of fuel. There is a trickle-down effect because less charters equals less bait, beer, ice, lunches and dinners. It equals less pay for captains, mates, bartenders and waitresses. Fuel drives the wheel.”

Captain Frank Pettolina agreed and said there was little other choice to adding a fuel surcharge to pass the expense somewhat onto the clients.

“Most boats are charging a fuel surcharge over $4 a gallon already,” he said. “At $6.70 per gallon for diesel, multiplied by 250 to 500 gallons per trip, it’s disgusting. Engine oil is now $25 per gallon, so the base prices are going up 25% to 40% just to get here and stay here. Sorry, I have a bleak outlook.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.