June 07, 2006

Beyond Their Depth: Fishing Industry Struggles To Stay Afloat

Independent / Kitty Merrill To conserve fuel commercial fishermen are cutting back on the amount of trips they take. Above, Sunday saw many draggers tied up in Montauk. (click for larger version)
Over and over they used one word to describe the effect soaring fuel costs are having on the local fishing industry: devastating. Any motorist can complain about high prices at the pumps, but for fishermen, skyrocketing fuel charges are adding insult to an industry already injured by impossible catch quotas.

"There's no fish coming across this dock. Everybody's tied up," Captain Kevin Maguire said. The dock at Inlet Seafood on East Lake Drive in Montauk was eerily quiet Sunday afternoon, as a normally slow time of the year for draggers and off-shore boats ground to glacial speed by hefty fuel costs.

"Our expenses have more than doubled in the last year," Captain Kenny Jayne, who fishes a scalloper out of Shinnecock, said. For some fishermen, particularly those with large craft that can burn 10,000 gallons per trip, the expenses can outweigh what government mandated quotas allow them to catch. "You could come in with a boatload and lose money," Maguire informed. Jayne has fished his whole life, and seen lots of commercial fisherman leave New York to work in states where the taxes and mandated quotas are less onerous.

Jayne's two sons Kenny and Steven accompanied their Dad to the dock on Sunday morning a 60-mile round trip from their Cutchogue home, which adds even more overhead to each workday. Both little boys say they want to fish when they grow up. Will there still be a fishing industry by the time the two youngsters are old enough to helm a scalloper?

"That's a crystal ball question," Jayne replied.

For now, most fishermen said they're changing the way they fish, cutting days short to conserve gas. "The meter's spinning all the time," said Jayne. Hank Lachner who sails the Jason & Diane out of the Inlet dock in Montauk said he and colleagues have always fished "way off shore." But fuel prices are making them think twice about steaming for a full day to get to fishing grounds. For the biggest boats, it can now cost $10,000 "just to leave the dock," Lachner explained, adding, "It's killing us, actually."

Boat owner Dan Farnham whose Kimberly sails out of the commercial dock in Montauk said he checks the price of fish before deciding if his boats will leave port. Unlike other industries, where overhead increases can be passed on to customers, commercial fishermen basically fish on consignment. They get for a catch what the market will pay; there's no way for them to recoup increased overhead. The buyers at the Fulton Fish market, where most catches are sent, "laughed at us" when a suggestion was made to incorporate a fuel surcharge into the price of fish, Farnham said. Fulton receives catches from fisherman sailing out of ports in other states where fuel is less costly, and doesn't need to increase what they pay for a catch.

"You see people tying up more and more," Farnham said. "And when that happens, the first thing to go is the crew." Mates on the vessels are often paid a share of the overall proceeds of a trip. They, too, have their take cut to accommodate higher expenses. "Everybody's making less," Farnham summarized.

On top of that, higher fuel prices have had a domino effect hiking the price of maintenance, ice, shipping, and other necessities associated with fishing.

Anthony Sosinski worked rebuilding the Anna Mary during the off-season. When he began the job, fiberglass cost $18 a gallon. During the first price hikes last fall it mushroomed to $45. As the captain of a small commercial lobster boat, Sosinski doesn't use the amount of fuel draggers and off-shore commercial vessels do. Still, he's hurting. Whereas the cost of a trip was once $40 for fuel and $100 for bait, now he's paying $120 for fuel with bait, so far, holding steady. "That's going up, too," Ted Stevens enjoined as the men worked at the commercial dock in Montauk Sunday. The weather wasn't the only thing gloomy at the harbor that day.

Hosing off the Sea Wife after a trip, charter boat captain Tom Cusimano said he's still doing all right. Open boats and charter boats can set their fares, and many have raised prices. Cusimano said his customers expect increases that reflect the cost of living each year, but he'd lose clients if he raised fares too much. So, he said, "I just grin and bear it and hope something breaks."

The charter captain believes the price of fuel and gasoline will eventually cripple not only the fishing industry, but the economy of Montauk as a whole —"The T shirt shops, the restaurants, hotels, everything. They're all going to be effected," he said. Forget increased fares on the boats, day trippers are already hesitant to pay the cost of driving to Montauk amid increased gas prices and in frustration at the traffic, Cusimano offered.

Gesturing around the dock, the captain pointed out a handful of open boats that never left the dock that morning. (Open boats carry dozens of passengers, usually for half-day trips. They are also known as party boats or head boats.) "It's a Sunday and they haven't even sailed. What's that tell you?"

It was, according to Captain Fred. E Bird of the party boat Flying Cloud a "dead dock" on Sunday. He didn't sail. June is traditionally a slow time, he said, admitting it was unusual to see an entire Sunday at port nonetheless. Bird raised his fare by $2, but he doubts it will cover the increased overhead fuel prices will bring about. "It could be free, but we won't sail if nobody comes," he said. Bird, too, has seen the trickle-down effect in more costly bait and maintenance materials needed to keep the Flying Cloud afloat.

While the folks at one private marina in Hampton Bays that caters to high end sailors said, "We're fine," down at Ponquogue Marina, a group of mariners gathered on land to chat about the effect of fuel. Pointing to pleasure boats still on blocks and in their winter wrappers, Al Havel said, "People aren't anxious to put their boats in the water. See how many are still sitting on land? That tells you something." Havel runs a small lobster boat and said he was glad he recently put in a new fuel-efficient engine. Fuel has gone up about $20 per trip for him. "With any luck I can cover it," he said.

"I'm standing on land and not in my boat," George Barkas said. "It's too expensive." A retired commercial fisherman who now runs a sport boat for pleasure, Barkas said three or four years ago a ride to Montauk used to cost him $40. Now it's $320.

Marina owner Bill Stubelek predicted the full effect of soaring fuel costs wouldn't truly be felt until this winter, when it's compounded by increased home heating costs. He is already seeing a domino effect of the costs, noting fuel surcharges added to some marine supply deliveries that used to be free. Customer Tred Barta added, "Everything Bill touches is basically petroleum-based. People are getting killed at the pump and in every direction." A sportsman who has a show on the Outdoor Life Network, Barta spoke of the multiplier effect of high fuel prices. "It goes right across the line," he said, "and the net effect for the working person is devastating."

There's that word again. Another fisherman at the Ponquoge Marina succinctly voiced the second most oft-spoken reaction to rocketing fuel costs: "Ouch."

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