Charter operators fishing for customers this season

Daily Record Business Writer
May 21, 2009 7:26 PM

OCEAN CITY — The problems may be different this summer for Ocean City’s charter boat operators, but the worries are the same.

Shepherd University student Anthony Pino spends his summers as a first mate on the Marlin Magic, but he doesn’t see a future for himself in the industry.After their worst season in decades — thanks to high fuel prices and a poor tuna fishing season — this year the boat captains will have to deal with the recession.

Although last year’s season was described with words like “horrible” and “devastating,” most operators in one of the resort town’s largest industries, who are hired for offshore fishing day trips, say matching 2008’s numbers will be good enough this year.

“We’re optimistic,” said Ron Callis, captain of the Shelly II. “The fuel’s less than half what it was last summer, so that alone will save us some money.”

Added Brian Tinkler, general manager at the Sunset Marina: “Last year the boats didn’t move. It’s still anybody’s guess for this year with the economy, but we’re encouraged by the fuel prices.”

Not everyone is as upbeat. Marty Moran, captain of the Marlin Magic, said he thinks this year could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

“If the economy stays this way, you’re going to see a lot less people here next season,” he said.

Moran, who captains a 56-foot, $2.5 million boat purchased by its Hagerstown-base owner in 2007, said it’s not becoming cost-effective anymore for the larger, less fuel-efficient boats to keep running charters.

Burning 350 to 500 gallons during a day trip last summer cost $1,680 to $2,400 in fuel alone for the Marlin Magic, he said. This summer, the same trip would cost about half that much in fuel, but demand is down.

“It’s been dead this year,” he said. “My phone’s been silent. If I book 12 trips this summer, I’ll be happy.”

Chartering a boat is an expensive outing for most — even when the cost is split between six people, the maximum size for a trip. Between the boat rental, first mate’s tip, paying for fish cleaning and a night at a hotel, a weekend fishing trip can top more than $5,000.

To offset the cost of diesel last year, many charters added a fuel surcharge or raised their rates by several hundred dollars. In addition, a short yellowfin tuna season — normally a big draw for the charter boat business here — lasted only a few weeks in June. The double-whammy contributed to a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in business, down to an average of about 30 to 40 trips last summer, operators said.

Some captains, such as Moran, were temporarily laid off by the boat owners during the winter for one or two weeks to offset the poor season. Other boats just didn’t make the trip from Florida in the winter to Maryland for the summer season here (and vice versa last fall) to save the more than $10,000 that it would have cost in fuel last year, marina managers said.

This year, operators face a different double-whammy: a slow economy and tougher regulations that further limit the day’s take for sport fishing. As of Jan. 1, the National Marine Fisheries Service limited a recreational boat’s daily take to one Atlantic bluefin tuna, down from two last year, to protect the fish population.

Although captains said most anglers hire the charters for the experience and not necessarily to put food on the table, the limits provide less incentive to make — and pay for — a 12-hour day trip.

To combat any further decline in demand this year, captains have lowered prices or offered other incentives. The Marlin Magic’s daily offshore rate has gone down $200 to $2,400. Ronnie Zajdel, captain of Zipper Sport Fishing Charters, is throwing in beer and soda with the trip, which costs $2,200 for a day.

The Shelly II and its sister boat, the Sea Wolf, have discounted their rates by $100 to $1,950 and $1,800, respectively, for those who book early.

Although it’s still early and many trips will not be booked until the season starts in June, most operators say their bookings are slightly down from last year.

The Ocean City Fishing Center, Sunset’s sister marina, has booked about 45 trips so far for its 28-boat fleet, compared to 53 booked in May 2008, according to Jennifer Blunt, the marina’s office manager. The marina, which acts as an agent and promoter for the boats that dock there, booked 300 trips through October last season.

“We’re getting a lot of calls, but mostly people are kicking the tires,” said Blunt. “It seems to be that people are waiting to see how the fishing will turn out this year.”

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