Nobody enjoys filling up his gas tank these days. But it could be worse — you could be a fisherman. The men and women who catch the cod, swordfish and salmon that we eat have to run their engines around the clock when they are at sea. And when they're pushing 60-foot-long steel ships through the water with 500-horsepower diesel motors, fuel prices are a heavy blow.
The expense is driving some fishermen out of business.
At a harbor in Saco, Maine, Craig Pendleton motors his 45-foot commercial fishing boat, the Ocean Spray, up to the pier.
This boat drags big nets for bottom-feeding fish like flounder and cod. And Pendleton says the higher fuel costs are devastating. "It's getting to the point where it's really frustrating," he says. Pendleton says he's not looking to make a fortune, "but I'd like to have something at the end of the week."
That's no exaggeration. Fuel has become such a huge expense that in fishing harbors around New England, fishermen are having trouble making any money at all. Up the coast in Portland, Maine, boat owner Brian Pearce has just unloaded his catch of cod and other bottom-feeding fish from a three-day trip.
This last trip he made $3,000 selling his catch. But he had to spend $2,200 on fuel. Add $200 more for ice and food and he's got $600 left over to split between him and another man working on his boat. "It doesn't even cover the expense of operating the boat," he says.
Pearce just spent three days at sea working around the clock and doesn't have much to show for it. Diesel fuel is priced around $4.50 a gallon. About a year ago, when fuel was close to half the price, Pearce would have had an extra $1,000 in his pocket after a trip like this. Five years ago, he would have had an additional $1,500, because back then, he says, he was paying below a dollar a gallon for fuel.
At the fish pier in Portland, where the daily fish auction takes place inside a refrigerated warehouse, one can see why fishermen like Pearce are in trouble. The fish are unloaded here, packed on ice and sold to the highest bidder. But there's no way to pass along a higher fuel cost to customers.
Bert Jongerden, the general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, says fishermen can only get what customers will pay, since fish is sold at auction. And those customers have a lot of choices. They can usually get cheap farmed catfish or shrimp from Asia, or they could just eat more chicken. They're only going to pay so much for Atlantic cod.
"Whatever economic forces are working that day, that's what the price will be," Jongerden says.
Home On The Dock
Jongerden says half the fishing fleet in Portland isn't working. The owners say with fuel so expensive, it just doesn't pay to leave the dock.
Economists and fishermen both predict that if fuel prices stay this high, many fishermen will be forced out of business. Fishermen who can still get a good price for their catch, such as scallopers, may weather the storm.
Boats For Sale
Pearce will probably be one of those giving up. Last year he sold his federal fishing permit for the larger boat he owns. He says he'd like to sell both of his boats, but he's having trouble. His boat broker says nobody is purchasing fishing boats because of the uncertainty.
Pearce says on top of the fuel, restrictions to protect certain types of fish are getting tougher. Some fishermen think the industry will adapt to higher fuel prices by shifting to smaller engines and fishing in fewer areas.
But that will take time. And if the cost of fuel doesn't drop soon, a lot of fishermen say they'll be looking for other work.