While federal and state fishery regulators conjure up management schemes to maintain certain spawning potential ratios, the rapidly increasing price of fuel has dramatically changed that equation. This is a pivotal moment in the history of Florida fishing, as recreational boat owners, charter skippers and the commercial fishing industry must evaluate the serious cost/benefit ratio of offshore fishing.
Tampa Bay skipper Randy Rochelle, for example, not only has to pay at least $4 a gallon to gas his Pro Cat charter vessel, he also is faced with the reluctance of potential clients to spend money they need for life's necessities.
"People don't have the 'fun money' to spend on things like fishing charters. They're putting a lot of those funds back into their gas tanks so that they can get back and forth to work," Rochelle said. "As a result, I think my charter business is about a third of what it was last year at this time. For most of the skippers that I talk to, the charter business is in the dumper right now."
For captain Dave Zalewski, it's not only the price of fuel, but also the cost of every other thing that's transported, including necessities such as bait, sinkers, hooks, and fishing line. All have dramatically increased in price.
"I had to raise my rates in January by 10 percent," he said. "And, frankly, I regret that I hadn't raised them to 20 percent just to cover my costs, with the way things are escalating."
Rochelle said he tried to raise his charter fees, but then reality set in.
"Initially I had raised rates a couple hundred bucks per trip to keep up with the rapid rise of fuel expenses," he said. "But now I've lowered them back to what they were, just to get some business. Of course, I'm going to make a lot less money, but it's better than making none at all."
What recommendations do these skippers have for their colleagues and recreational offshore anglers?
"Just pull the throttles back. And you have to fish smarter," Zalewski said. "These days, I restrict my trips to 90 feet of water off the Tampa Bay coast or less. And if you can't run successful charters inside of 90 feet, you're not going to be able to do it at all."
Zalewski said there's plenty of productive territory between 90 feet and the shoreline.
"I really don't see the need to go any further than that," he said. "The fact of the matter is, all these years I've been running over tons and tons of fish heading for deeper waters. So these days, I pull back on the throttles, not run as far, and can still find some nice fish, while keeping expenses manageable."
Have these escalating fuel prices reduced fishing boat traffic offshore? And doesn't that take a lot of the pressure off our fishery?
"That's something we've been trying to get across to the fisheries managers," Rochelle said, "and I've noticed a substantial decline in the amount of boats that I'm seeing offshore. So the fisheries managers may want to reconsider some of their recent regulations and closures."
There is, indeed, a lot less pressure on the fishery, and Zalewski said grouper fishing this year has been "absolutely phenomenal."
He said he recently had a group from Connecticut that wanted to do catch-and-release fishing, and "we would have had 10 keepers, but they released every single one of them."
Zalewski has been targeting different species. He also has downsized his tackle.
"My clients are having a blast catching triggerfish, large Key West grunts, snapper, sea bass and stuff like that," he said. "And on light tackle, those fish are as much fun to catch as grouper might be on heavier gear."
Advancements Have Helped
Zalewski, who has been chartering for about 28 years, said he believes fishing off Florida's Gulf Coast is as good as when he first began running charters.
"If we went back and looked at the fish that we were catching and keeping in the old days - what they call 'the good old days' - back then, everything went into the box," Zalewski said. "And unfortunately a lot of those were very small fish. These days, we have better management, electronics and other more advanced gear. I watched the fishery in its heyday, I saw its decline, and then recently I watched it come back.
"And if we all have a good offshore ethic, like most anglers who fish inshore waters, it can get even better."
Zalewski has developed a unique clientele, coming aboard with a great conservation-minded outlook.
"These days, we rarely have 'meat trips.' I will frankly discourage any potential customer from fishing with me who says they want to fill the freezer. Those folks will let fish sit for six months or more in there, then see the freezer burn and throw them away," Zalewski said. "As bad as the economy is, and as slow as business is these days, I just don't want people like that aboard my boats.
"I want people to see the beauty of the fish coming up instead of dollar signs or 'groceries' coming up."
What's the future for offshore chartering?
Rochelle told Florida Fishing Weekly that he's just trying to make it through this year.
"I'm hoping that after the election and a new administration takes over, things will turn around," Rochelle said. "But if fuel prices continue going up, I feel the offshore charter business as we know it is going to be a thing of the past."