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Fuel Prices Hurt Charter Fishing: Va., N.C. Captains and Marina Operators Say Business is Off By Up to 30 Percent

June 18, 2008

By Bill Geroux, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

Jun. 18–WACHAPREAGUE — It’s 50 miles from the docks of this Eastern Shore fishing village to the deep-ocean canyons where the big fish swim, and Capt. Frank Large’s charter boat guzzles gas all the way.

Plowing through the ocean, the Nita Dream gets less than 1 mile to a gallon of diesel fuel. The boat’s twin diesel engines burn 25 gallons an hour. On an offshore trip, the Nita Dream consumes roughly $1,000 worth of fuel.

Large tries to pass on some of the rising costs of fuel to his customers, but where are they? He has only four bookings for trips the rest of the summer. No one even inquires. “It’s unbelievable how the calls have fallen off,” he said. “Nobody wants to go fishing.”

Charter fishermen, utterly reliant on inexpensive gas, rank with long-haul truckers and big farmers among the businesses hit hardest by gas prices.

The government does not keep up-to-date records of charter-fishing trips in the region. But captains and marina operators on the Eastern Shore, in Virginia Beach and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina agreed business is off by 25 percent to 30 percent.

Offshore charter boats typically carry parties of six fishermen to the Gulf Stream, a warm current in the ocean where tuna and marlin flash through cobalt-blue water, or one of its eddies. Many captains also offer shorter trips for less celebrated fish. Even the short trips take 100 gallons of diesel.

At Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach, fuel prices have pushed the cost of an offshore trip to $1,900, nearly $500 more than a couple of years ago. One recent afternoon, all of the local charter vessels floated idly at the docks.

“Here it is, a bright and sunny day and not a single boat’s out,” said John Fleet, captain of the 53-foot Reel Hot. His boat burns up to 230 gallons on its full-throttle, two-hour runs to the fishing grounds at Norfolk Canyon.

The Gulf Stream passes only about 25 miles offshore at Hatteras, N.C. Charter boats from Hatteras need far less fuel to reach prime waters. But first a fisherman would have to buy enough gasoline to drive to Hatteras, at the southern tip of the 60-mile-long Hatteras Island.

“It’s harder for people to go anywhere on vacation right now, and they think of charter fishing as a luxury they can do without,” said Dan Rooks, captain of the 52-foot Tuna Duck and president of the 25-member Hatteras Charter Boats Association. He said he expects a thinning of the charter fleet.

Most charter captains in the Outer Banks own their boats and rely on regular bookings to make ends meet, Rooks said.

Virginia Beach charter captain Mike Standing said he has stayed busy by developing package deals, including fishing, motel lodging and dinner at a restaurant that cooks whatever the fishermen catch. Standing said he just bought an expensive system to improve his boat’s fuel economy.

One of Standing’s recent customers, Danny Williams, said the fishing trip was paid for by his corporate employer — “a Fortune 500 industrial supply company.” But he said the company decided to forgo a trip to the Gulf Stream and stay closer to shore. “You can’t throw money into the wind.”

A drop in charter fishing would relieve at least some pressure on the populations of tuna and other sought-after game fish, said Dan Furlong, director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He said fishermen who stayed at it probably would catch more fish than before.

In Wachapreague, population 236, the local charter fleet has shrunk from about 25 boats in the 1990s to eight boats today, said Joe Spagnolo, the manager of the Wachapreague Marina. Not one of the boats has been busy this spring.

Spagnolo — the state superintendent of schools under former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in the 1990s — said charter fishing could revive quickly with some help from the fish. Last season’s fishing was subpar, he said, and hard-core fishermen might be waiting for signs of a change.

“If we start catching fish, we’ll be up and running,” he said. “People will come back. It’s like an addiction.” Contact Bill Geroux at (757) 498-2820 or bgeroux@timesdispatch.com.

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