Fuel hikes bite commercial anglers
Fishermen are caught between rising costs and lower fish prices
Frank James has been running his boat, the 68-foot Pacific Sun, slower and trying not to go as far to save on fuel costs that have been eating into his profits.
Fuel takes up about 40 percent of his $30,000 per-trip cost, up from 10 percent about four years ago, he said.
His boat uses about 3,000 gallons to travel 900 miles at a cost last week of $4.35 per gallon for highway-tax-free diesel. If it hits $5 a gallon, he might stop operating, he said.
Commercial fishermen in Honolulu are feeling the crunch of rising fuel costs, which in turn boost the cost of everything from bait to gear to food for the crew.
"I think in the long run, the fleet's going to be reduced as people start running out of resources," James said. "We're not getting any more money on average than three or four years ago, when fuel was a buck a gallon."
So fishing crews are cutting corners wherever they can - from departing with less fuel in their tanks to postponing vessel maintenance, James said.
"I've seen several boats tied up now," he said. "They have an engine breakdown, and they don't have any money to fix it."
Hawaii's fishing industry, which produces only about 3 percent of the catch of fisheries in the Pacific, has about 130 longline boats and generated $67 million in revenue in 2006.
Mike Rossman, manager at Marine Petroleum Corp., which sells fuel to commercial fishermen, said consumption of fuel has dropped about 10 percent in the last two months as boats stay closer to home or fewer go out.
Before fuel prices spiked, consumption held or grew, he said.
"It's pretty ridiculous," he said. "Fishermen are suffering."
Minling Pan, an economist at NOAA who studies the longline fishing industry, said fishermen will probably continue fishing because they have invested in their equipment and must pay dock fees and insurance even if they do not fish.
"In some way, if you go out you will earn less, but you will lose less," she said.
Contributing to the crunch are lower ahi prices in the face of greater supplies and more options like imported tuna treated with carbon monoxide.
"Nowadays a large percentage of people buy poke from the supermarket that is not made from local tuna," said Pan.
The inflation-adjusted price for bigeye tuna dropped from $5.48 in 1990 to $3.26 last year, Pan said. At auction Friday, tuna was selling for between $4.08 and $6.20 a pound.
"We're just turning our wheels," said Skip Gallimore, who owns five longline boats. "There's a lot of people going broke."
Scotty Barrows, general manager of Hawaii Longline Association, which oversees Hawaii's longline fishers, said the agency is looking for ways to promote the quality of locally caught fish and its value - caught in the most regulated fishing industry in the world with stringent protections of other sea creatures.
"In 25 years I've never seen it like this where we don't have a solution to one of our problems," he said.