ISLAMORADA, Fla. - Down here in the so-called "Sportfishing Capital of the World," there's a saying among anglers: Even during a depression, a man has money for beer and fishing.
Rising fuel costs and general economic malaise, however, are putting that mantra to the test in the Florida Keys and elsewhere where charter boat fishing brings in millions of dollars. Across the country, boat captains are feeling the pinch in recreational and commercial fishing.
As of yesterday, the average cost for a gallon of diesel was near $4.80, according to AAA. That's up from an average of about $2.90 a gallon a year ago.
That means boat captains are having to raise prices or add hefty fuel surcharges to fees that before this season were already around $800 to $1,500 for a full day.
Some in the charter fishing industry estimate that business is off anywhere from 20 to 90 percent because customers just can't afford the added costs.
"Some guys are just sitting on the docks waiting for business and it ain't happening," said Steve Leopold, president of the Islamorada Charter Boat Association. "There's people who come down and don't even ask the price of my charters. Then there's people who . . . say, 'Wow, can you cut me a break?' I say, 'If you bring your own fuel.' "
On a recent sunny afternoon at Whale Harbor Marina in the Florida Keys, Chris Adams, 41, had just returned from a half-day charter trip.
"We probably would have spent the whole day out but it would have been $400 more," Adams said. His half-day trip this year cost $800, about what a full day on the water cost last year.
There's less money to spend on vacation, Adams said, when you also factor in how much more it cost him just to fill his own gas tank for the drive. Adams has driven down from Connecticut for the past three years, a round trip he said would cost him about $600 more this year than it did last year.
Paul Redman, president of Pensacola Charter Boat Association, said even the cost of bait has gone up because of higher fuel costs.
Redman said he charged customers $1,200 for a recent six-hour trip on the water, but his costs of $500 for fuel, $100 for bait and tackle, $100 for his deckhand, and boat maintenance fees meant his profit was a mere $300. Five years ago, it would have topped $800.
"It's just about not worth doing it anymore," Redman said.
The charter fishing fleet generated more than $1.1 billion in revenues nationwide, including some related sales, in 2000, the latest figures available, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Commercial and charter fishing industry representatives from around the country plan to meet with members of Congress today in Washington, seeking financial relief to help offset losses.
Some regions are suffering from a one-two punch of higher fuel prices and the closure or shortening of seasons for popular fish species, said Bob Zales, president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators.
In the Florida Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico, anglers come from across the country to fish for red snapper. But combined federal and state limits have reduced the catch allowed per charter boat and shortened the season. Zales said he estimates that up to half the entire Gulf charter fishing fleet from Texas to Florida could be out of business by December.
On the West Coast, where the federal government has closed all sport and commercial salmon fishing off California and most of Oregon due to a population collapse, the result has been "absolutely devastating," said Captain William Smith, who runs the 40-foot Riptide out of Half Moon Bay, Calif., just south of San Francisco.
Coupled with rising fuel costs, "I'm stupid to even stay in the business," Smith said. "But even if I was to try to sell my boat, nobody's buying.