Price of marine fuel soars as Mainers head into prime boating season

·5 min read

May 28—Record-high prices for marine fuel are likely to cause headaches out on the water this summer.

Commercial fishermen and recreational boaters alike are going to be hit by the skyrocketing prices, which may result in shorter trips or fewer boats heading out of marinas in Maine this summer.

Dustin Delano, a Friendship lobsterman, said it costs him about $800 in diesel fuel each time he heads out to tend his traps. Delano holds a federal lobster permit that allows him to place his traps more than three miles off the coast, the best place to catch lobster this time of year before the shellfish head to coastal waters in about a month. But that also means longer trips to gather lobsters and bait the traps again.

"It's a huge impact right now," Delano said, particularly with wholesale prices for lobster slightly depressed.

The wholesale price of lobster, he said, is running about $5.55 a pound, about $3 a pound below what it was a year ago at this time. Between the cost of fuel and paying his two crewmembers, he said, "there's really not much left."

"We're always optimistic and we're really hoping the market gets strong because we're going to need it with the higher fuel prices," Delano said.

HIGH PRICES AFFECT LOBSTERMEN

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the national average for diesel fuel as of July 1, 2020, was $2.20 a gallon. As of earlier this week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said, the nationwide average for a gallon of diesel fuel had shot up to $5.57. In New England, it was even higher at about $6.37 a gallon.

A local marina said its pump price this week was $6.50 a gallon for diesel and $5.89 a gallon for ethanol-free gasoline, the fuel used by most recreational boaters.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said the only positive thing about the high prices right now is that they are coming at a time when lobstering is slow, so most lobstermen are taking fewer trips.

She said about 20 percent of Maine lobstermen hold a federal permit to set traps in deeper offshore waters, and they're busy now. But the bulk of lobstermen are fixing their gear and preparing to set traps closer to shore next month.

As for the federal permit holders, "they say they're losing money on those trips," McCarron said. "We hope that the market we had last year, which was so strong, will hold."

Maine lobsterman hauled in 108 million pounds of lobster last year. The best catch in three years, it was worth a record $725 million. That easily eclipsed 2016, which had been the best year for the value of the state's lobster catch at $541 million.

EFFECT ON BOATERS UNCLEAR

The impact of high fuel prices on recreational boaters, whose season unofficially gets underway this weekend, is less clear.

"It's absolutely going to affect us," said Billy Darling, 29, of South Portland, who owns a 38-foot Luhrs powered by twin diesel motors.

Darling likes to go fishing with friends and will often travel well out into the Gulf of Maine. But this year, that could mean about 100 gallons of diesel at prices topping $6 a gallon.

"Its' going to limit the amount of trips we take this summer," he said.

Darling also likes boating up the coast with his girlfriend and family members, but this year "there's going to be a lot of sitting around the dock," he said. "It's going to be an expensive summer and put a damper on the fun."

Still, Darling doesn't plan to spend the brief Maine summer idled.

"You only get a couple of months of summer, so it's not like we're going to tie up the boat," he said.

Peter Rauscher, the dockmaster at Port Harbor Marine in South Portland, said that's likely to be the attitude of most recreational boaters despite the high fuel prices.

He said the marina has seen no letup in Mainers arranging to get their boats back in the water this spring, and a lot of people are eager to get back to spending time on the water after two years of the pandemic.

Some boaters, he said, might make shorter outings to curb the cost of fuel, but they're still going to want to get out.

"For recreational boaters, I don't think it's going to have that big of an impact," Rauscher said.

MARINE BUSINESSES FACE IMPACT

It's already having an impact, however, on some businesses that serve those boaters.

Sea Tow is a sort of AAA of the sea, said Bruce White, co-owner of the business. It sells memberships, he said, and then boaters can call if they need assistance — if they've run out of fuel and need a few gallons to get in, or if they've encountered a mechanical problem and need a tow.

For competitive reasons, he declined to specify the fuel surcharge, but he said the high fuel prices also force him to change the way he does business. For instance, he currently has his boats constantly on the move to be ready to go if a call comes in, but he may rein in that practice to conserve fuel.

For Sea Tow, White said, the biggest expenses are payroll and fuel.

"I'm not sure in which order," he said. "I think it's probably going to be fuel this summer."

White is friends with some lobstermen and worries about how the sharply higher fuel prices will impact them.

"It's a tough time," he said. With high fuel prices and flat lobster prices, "it's going to be a terrible circle."