Charter boats are a big business in New Jersey, but they are not always a great business for their operators.

Expenditures by charter and party boat passengers in 2006 in New Jersey were $227 million for New Jersey residents and $230 million for out-of-state residents, according to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is money spent on fuel, lodging and boating fees.

“Half the dollars come from nonresidents and that’s new money to the state of New Jersey,” said Rob Southwick, a statistician with the American Sportfishing Association.

Southwick said NOAA figures show charter and party boat fishing in New Jersey creates 934 jobs, a figure that he believes is low.

The last figures available are from 2006, and captains say business has dropped the past few years due to a bad economy, too many fishing regulations and spikes in fuel prices.

“I’m one of the few guys actually busy,” said Barnegat Light captain Ed Yates, a charter boat captain for 32 years.

Yates remembers when the charter boat fleet at the Barnegat Light Yacht Basin totaled 27 full-time boats. Now there are only four.

“The rest are part time who have other incomes. I’ve seen a vast decline. They can no longer make a go of it and either sold out or just do it part time,” Yates said.

Most of Yates’ customers are from out-of-state who pump money into the local economy. He said oone-third of his business is from the Amish.

He mostly blames fishing regulations for the decline in business. Strict size restrictions mean few fish are keepers. He said most fish that are thrown back die anyway from being hooked.

“People don’t want to come out to throw fish back all day. We need smaller size limits,” Yates said.

Tony Bogan, of the trade group United Boatman, which represents 120 vessels in New Jersey and New York, calls the state of the industry “tenuous at best” due to the regulations and the economy.

“You still have to pay the electric bill but you don’t have to go fishing,” Bogan said.

He added that a party boat trip ranges from $40 to $60 while charter boats can run $150 to $250 per angler. It sounds like a lot, but some are still recovering from 2008 when diesel fuel rose above $5 a gallon.

Bogan’s business, Bogan’s Deep Sea Fishing Center in Brielle and Point Pleasant Beach, has seven boats and saw the fuel bill go from $1 million in 2007 to $2 million in 2008.

The captains with years in the business seem somewhat insulated during the bad times since they have regular clients.

Capt John Sowerby, a full-time charter boat captain in Cape May who has spent 25 years in the business, said some charter boats haven’t left the dock this year, but he’s been running every day catching black drum in the Delaware Bay.

“We have two trips a day. I had three from Manhattan yesterday who paid me 1,000 bucks. The good boats still go all the time. It would be tough if you were young and wanted to feed your family,” Sowerby said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711