Fishing whether it is commercial or sport fishing charters are tough businesses. The weather, the catch and the economy always play fickle roles in these businesses. Last year in the Keys the commercial fishermen suffered their worst year in ages due to Hurricane Wilma destroying their gear. This year the charter fishermen are suffering.
Tourism, the life-blood of the Keys is off this year due to a triple threat. Fuel prices while lower that the peak, are still much higher that many vacationers care to afford. The El Nino winter caused unseasonably warm temperatures in the northeast U.S., which is keeping potential vacationers at home. Finally, prices in the Keys are higher due to Hurricane Wilma recovery costs.
Fuel prices are slowly dropping but at a much slower rate than they rose due to commodity speculators. With current oil prices ranging from 50 to 53 dollars per barrel, prices at the pump should be under two dollars. Gasoline investors are holding tight to their investments trying to avoid losses that are inevitable. The warmer winter has reduced heating oil costs. Inventories of heating oil and gasoline are near maximum capacity, meaning something will have to give in the market. Until prices stabilized at realistic values, Keys charter fishermen have to add fuel surcharges to their trip costs.
El Nino winters are extremely erratic. Unseasonably warm periods followed by devastating winter storms, as Texas and Oklahoma are experiencing. These weather impacts first cause vacationers to delay their winter travel plans in the mild weather. Then when the weather hits hard they are often stuck with closed airports and roads making vacation plans unpredictable.
The price increases due to Wilma are going to have to be reconsidered by Keys businesses. With the slow start to the tourist season, price cuts will be needed to attract any vacationers available. While affluent vacationers will benefit, Keys businesses will have to tighten their belts and wait. Wait for a huge rush at the latter part of the season or wait until next year.
Start-up charters and charters that depend on over-flow business from other larger charter companies are suffering the most. Some have had to mortgage their businesses just to cover costs. This will cut deeply in to their profits over the next few years. Established charters have higher advertising costs that will reduce their profit margins with average sales off more than 25% thus far this season.
The plight of the charter businesses trickles down to the Keys hospitality industry in general. Charter fishing trips are a major attraction in the Keys. With fishing vacationers finding charters unaffordable, the restaurants and hotels suffer as well. Many large developers stand poised to take advantage of the misfortunes of the smaller Keys family owned businesses. If the tourist season does not change soon, the flavor of the Florida Keys may change dramatically forever.