Gas Prices Putting Crunch On Charter Boat Business

By Andrea Shiell, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (May 8, 2008)—The start of this year’s rockfish season may have been windy and somewhat cold, but as the sun has shown and the weather has warmed, teams of fishers have been hitting the waters to lure impressive catches.

Captain Butch Cornelius has nothing but good things to say about the fishing this year. “There are nice big fish, plenty of them,” he says, but when the subject of fuel costs comes up, his voice gets noticeably darker. “Fuel costs are definitely going to hurt the charter business…it makes it harder for people to operate the boats, and we’ve had to raise our rates,” he says.

Some captains are trying to moderate their rate increases, capping prices so as not to scare away potential customers. Such is the case for Captain Phil Langley, Jr., who drives the Chesapeake Charm. He says he has had to raise his rates by 10 percent since last year, but that he has tried to keep his increases minimal.

“If you’re fishing close to home that’s acceptable,” Langley says, “but fish have tails and they move, and the further out you have to go, the more it’s going to cost.

Langely added that his moderate rate increases have not kept up with the cost increases for fuel, so profits are still at risk for his and other charter businesses. “I think everybody’s feeling the impact,” he says, adding that mounting costs are causing a fair amount of concern for the future of his business. “I don’t know what the answer is, but if fuel costs stay as they are, our rates will have to go up more,” he says.

While presidential candidates argue about gas tax holidays and increasing economic hardships in the wake of record gas prices, businesses in the area are also feeling the burn, and many in the area’s charter captains are less than optimistic.

“Fuel costs are killing everybody,” says Captain Eddie Davis, who runs his charter from Ridge, and has had to raise his rates by $100 from last year.

Davis admits that his profits have slumped as a result. “You’ve got to raise rates to cover your fuel costs…so now a lot of people just call now to find out rates, and then hang up,” he says.

“There haven’t been as many frivolous trips,” says former charter captain Brady Bounds, who now works as a fishing guide in the area. Whereas before it was common for captains to venture out in search of fish without passengers, “they don’t have that luxury anymore.” He says that this has its downsides, including the charter captain tendency to “wolf-pack hunt,” collaborating with other captains about the most fruitful locations for fish.

“This homogenizes captains because they all show up at the same place at the same time,” he says, adding that fuel costs have also caused many charter captains to venture out three or four times a week, as opposed to their usual five to six times a week in past years.

Bounds did say that even though gas prices were putting an unfortunate pinch on charter captains, some others might benefit from warmer waters and fewer charter trips. He says that this year’s warmer water temperatures would cause larger spawning fish to move out faster, but as a result, smaller fish would be more evenly dispersed, luring predator fish closer to shore. This might spell bigger catches for shoreline fishers.

Regardless of rising fuel costs, Bounds remains optimistic. “I’m looking forward to a good season,” he says.

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