Cost of fuel hits boaters

Gas, diesel prices could eat up 20 percent of fishermens profits

Posted: Sunday, May 08, 2005

Don Kalk, a Juneau purse seiner, watched the steady rise of fuel prices and became convinced that he needed a more fuel-efficient boat engine.

His new engine is a big investment. But Kalk says there is little else he can do to improve his bottom line.

"Right now we are catching all the fish we can sell," he said Friday.

Some fishermen say they are resigned to the fact that rising fuel prices will take some of the shine off the improved markets for wild Alaska salmon of the last few years.

A further rise in prices may also lead to new fuel surcharges for some recreational and sport-fish charter boat operators, local operators said.

"It's all about the math," said Todd Richards, a Juneau troller who believes that fuel prices could take 15 percent to 20 percent of his gross income this year.

"Everybody is concerned," Richards said. "It just takes money out of your pocket."

Norma Fleek, a marketing director for the Charter Brokers of Alaska in Juneau, said her company probably will offer some contracts this summer that inform tourists a fuel surcharge will be tacked onto their package if fuel prices rise above a certain threshold.

None of her client charter operators have decided yet what price should trigger a surcharge, she said.

Recent dockside diesel prices in small northern Panhandle communities have ranged from $2.66 per gallon in Elfin Cove to $2.81 in Yakutat. At Auke Bay, the price is $2.40.

Since fuel prices at the dock are generally higher in the smaller communities where there is less competition and generally higher wholesale prices, some fishermen say they will stick closer to large communities like Juneau.

Others plan to stick closer to their home ports.

"If I spent the summer out on the ocean, it would cost me twice as much. Thousands of dollars, basically," said Lane Ply, an Elfin Cove troll fisherman.

Ply fishes from an ancient, gas-guzzling Bristol Bay gillnetter. "That's part of the problem," he said Friday.

Trollers who ply northern Southeast Alaska trolling grounds said they run the math to see whether it pays to fill up their tanks in Elfin Cove or take the longer ride to Hoonah.

A longer trip could result in cheaper gas, but it also means less time fishing, Richards said.

Predicting the summer season for Southeast charter operators and recreational boaters is a guessing game, but increasing fuel prices have already impacted boat sales, said Eric Lie-Nielsen, general manager of Juneau's Alaska Boat & Marine and Charter Brokers of Alaska.

"It's getting really hard to sell a gas-powered boat," Lie-Nielsen said. Gas-powered boats generally cost a lot more to run than diesel-powered boats.

Lee Dye, of Juneau, recently purchased what he calls a "real slow boat" - a large wooden vessel with reasonable gas mileage.

Knowing that fact helped with the decision to buy the boat, though they would have bought it anyway, said his wife, Sherie Dye.

"All boat owners are a little crazy," she said, laughing as she painted the deck on Friday afternoon in Juneau's Harris Harbor.

Lie-Nielsen has noticed another odd side-effect of high gas prices: The value of 1940s and 1950s era lower horsepower boats has skyrocketed. "They are good on fuel," he said.

"A funky old troller we couldn't give away before," he said. Now the old boats are selling well. A narrow-width, wood-hulled traditional boat that would have been valued at $25,000 last year is selling for $57,000 this year, Lie-Nielsen said.

Gas prices will have an impact on where people fish, how often they go out and how fast they get there, charter operators said.

Fishermen and recreational boaters both said they plan to slow down their boat speeds this summer.

"We'll travel on economy RPM (revolutions per minute)," said Dick Farnell, who just bought a 24-foot Hewes boat two days ago and plans to wander all over Southeast Alaska waters this summer.

"The sticker shock is going to come when I fill up for the first time," Farnell added.

"It's hitting all of us pretty hard," said Mike Erickson, owner of Auke Bay's Alaska Glacier Seafood fish plant.

But he said Juneau's gillnetters are getting a good enough price for their Taku River king salmon right now that it seems worthwhile.

"We're selling $4 per pound to our boats. I don't believe we've ever paid that before," Erickson said.

Juneau recreational boater Mark Guillory said he's not upset about the increasing fuel prices.

"Everywhere else in the world, people are paying $3 per gallon or better," Guillory said. "We're citizens of the world and the world is paying high oil prices."

Guillory, who rides a bike to work, said he would probably feel a little differently if he worked on a boat that ate up fuel all day.

Kalk, the purse seiner, said the rising fuel prices in general raise serious questions that go far beyond fishing.

"It would be nice to know why. The politics of it are pretty scary," Kalk said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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