SUMMER IS PEAK season for charter boats in the Bay Area. The weather is good, children are out of school and tourists visit San Francisco from all over the world.
But this year, peak season has turned painful for many charter boat owners, who are having to raise their prices or make less profits due to record-high fuel prices. Some are even rethinking being charter boat business owners.
“The business has definitely slowed down some — it’s not as busy as the last couple years,” said Steve Talmadge, owner of Flash Sports Fishing Charters based at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco.
Talmadge recalls going to work seven days a week during the summer peak season the last couple years. His weekends used to book up months in advance. But this July, he has five weekend days still open.
“I can see just by the calls — we don’t get as many calls. Households are costing more to survive, so they have less money to go on charter boat ventures,” Talmadge said, talking about how inflation is affecting customer interest in fishing on the San Francisco Bay.
Talmadge’s own operation has been hit hard by high fuel prices. His boat, like most other charter boats, runs on diesel.
“I don’t understand why diesel is so much more expensive than the regular fuel, and our boats burn a gallon a mile. When you go up from $3 something a gallon to $7 a gallon, it has a big impact,” he said. Currently, the price of diesel at Gashouse Cove, a popular fueling dock at the San Francisco Marina, is $7.75 per gallon.
Talmadge couldn’t afford to keep his charter rates the same as he shelled out more money at the pump. He raised his prices this May, increasing the price of a half-day charter per person from $200 to $250 and a half-day private charter for six people from $1,100 to $1,400.
“We tried to stick it out. But it was too much, we just couldn’t do it,” Talmadge said.
Other fishing charter boats in the San Francisco Bay are also raising their prices.
Michael Rescino, who owns Lovely Martha Fishing Charter at Fishermans Wharf, says that the cost of running his boat is around double this year compared to last year because of fuel prices.
Rescino raised his prices last month from $200 to $220 for a full day charter, but “it’s honestly not enough,” he said.
Rescino’s boat is larger than Talmadge’s, with a total capacity of 20 people compared to six.
“This was the best halibut season we’ve seen in a very, very, very long time, and it was hard for us to fill the boat, Rescino said. “And that was when the price was $200!” Even though he has increased his prices, the salmon fishing season looks promising and has begun to attract customers.
“At first the people weren’t booking, but they see that the [salmon] fish are biting and so they’re starting to call,” Rescino said, hopeful but uncertain about what the summer holds.
The San Francisco Bay is also home to tourist charters, who have been equally affected by high fuel prices.
Charles Jennings, who has owned Bay Voyager for 12 years, gives a variety of boat tours around the Bay starting at Pier 39.
“We talk about the history of San Francisco Bay, we take pictures of passengers, we go fast and slow, so it’s the perfect mixture of exciting and learning about our beautiful city,” said Jennings, whose business is currently the number 1 boat tour company in San Francisco on Tripadvisor, based on over 800 reviews by customers on the online booking website for destinations and experiences.
‘Sick’ of inflation
Jennings has charged adults $99 and children $69 since 2017 for his popular 90-minute tour that goes under the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. This year, he has chosen not to raise his prices.
“The whole inflation thing makes me sick, because it’s my belief that a lot of the inflation is just a few wealthy people being opportunistic,” Jennings said.
“When you hear that oil companies are making record profits — not sales, profits! — it’s wrong, and so that’s why I have not jacked up my prices at all. I will eventually have to, but I’m not going to do it just yet,” he said, referencing the record profits that Big Oil made in the first quarter of 2022.
The top five oil companies alone — Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips — brought in 200 percent more in profits in the first quarter of 2022 than in 2021, totaling more than $35 billion in profits in just three months, according to the Center for American Progress, a public policy institute based in Washington, D.C.
“It makes you question — is this the industry I want to stay in? I love what I do, people coming to my boat love what we do, but something is not making sense. It is painful, and all boat owners feel it.”Charles Jennings, Bay Voyager charter boat operator
ExxonMobil’s net profit doubled from the same period last year, while Chevron reported its highest quarterly profit in nearly a decade and Shell had its highest quarterly earnings ever.
Jennings also believes that the high cost of fuel is affecting charter boat owners more than most other businesses because boats are very expensive to maintain and run.
“Most businesses, of course, have expenses, but when you have a boat, it is amplified, because boats are just expensive,” Jennings said.
“Ask anybody — what are the two most memorable days of owning a boat? Buying it and selling it! There’s a very real reason behind that,” he said, adding that after hiring employees, fuel is the next biggest expense for charter boat businesses.
The stress of the pandemic coupled with inflation this year is making Jennings reconsider owning his own business and working long hours most days of the week.
“It makes you question — is this the industry I want to stay in? I love what I do, people coming to my boat love what we do, but something is not making sense. It is painful, and all boat owners feel it,” Jennings said, adding that despite his best efforts to give customers a premium experience, he thinks he’s earning around minimum wage.
“Especially since the COVID thing I’ve really questioned, am I doing all of this to give people a premium experience at minimum wage? With the stress of owning a business? What sense does that make? And it doesn’t!” Jennings said.