John Hiros, 71, pulled his small boat up to the ramp at the 10th Street Waterfront Park in Ship Bottom after an afternoon of crabbing.

Hiros, a retired consultant, lives in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, but he goes out on the Barnegat Bay about three times a week. On this day, he trapped enough crabs for a feast to go along with market-fresh corn on the cob.

But even in his 17-foot bay boat, his hobby is getting expensive, he said.

“Boat-ramp fees, fuel, registration — the price of everything has gone up,” he said. “The state has a captive audience. If you have dedicated boaters who like to fish and crab, you don’t have an option.”

The number of boat registrations is on the decline in New Jersey, despite an abundance of waterways that support a thriving marine culture. The state in March had about 170,000 registered boats — down 28 percent from 10 years ago, says the state Motor Vehicle Commission, which records boat registrations.

The last time boating interest declined so sharply was in 1991, when New Jersey passed a luxury tax on yachts. That tax was so unpopular and devastating to the boating industry that lawmakers repealed it two years later.

Now the recession, stricter licensing requirements and even the federal banking crisis have contributed to fewer boats on New Jersey’s waters, experts said.

“For a guy who lost his job and is struggling to feed his family, a boat is a luxury,” Hiros said.

Nationwide, states are reporting a similar decline in boating.

Dealers sold 19 percent fewer boats in 2009 than in the year before, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Revenue from boat sales dropped 24 percent. Adult participation in recreational boating dropped 6 percent to 65.9 million boaters, the group also said.

Boat registrations nationwide fell by 1 percent to 12.7 million boats last year. New Jersey registrations dropped by nearly twice that rate between 2008 and 2009, to 171,185. They dropped again in the first half of 2010 to 170,379, Motor Vehicle Commission figures show.

“The economy is still the big issue,” said Jon Mohr, managing editor for Boating Industry, a trade publication.

“It has bottomed out in different places, but according to the most recent forecast, it may never get back to where it was,” he said.

With a recession in 2008, All Seasons Marina in Upper Township, Cape May County, did not order new boats for its showroom, owner Brian Tersaga said. It proved to be a savvy move.

“When the credit markets froze up, you couldn’t buy a boat with anything less than a whole lot of cash. Nobody would lend money regardless of your credit history without a huge down payment,” he said. “You have to have financing or sales. If you don’t have either, you’re in trouble.”

Dealerships suffered in the mortgage crisis when banks tightened their lending requirements. This has had a ripple effect in the boating community.

“Last year was the worst. Everyone pulled back. There was little discretionary spending. The boats didn’t go in the water,” he said. “They didn’t get re-registered and they didn’t get used.”

Tersaga said he thinks the worst is over.

“We’re seeing a slight increase in business this year,” he said. “We’ll see very gradual improvement as consumer confidence increases and unemployment goes down.”

Despite its 130 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline, New Jersey ranks 29th nationally in the number of registered boats.

Boaters said the price of a boat is only the first expense to consider.

Boaters pay between $12 and $250 per year in registration fees, depending on the size of their watercraft.

Add to that insurance, fuel, membership to a towing service, boat slips, winter storage, launch fees and annual maintenance, and a boat can become a costly burden.

Marlton boater Domenic Maio, 45, spent an unsuccessful day of fishing off Long Beach Island.

Last year, his boat stayed on land all summer because its steering cable was broken. The car mechanic said he normally goes on the water about five times each summer. It’s hardly worth the aggravation, he said.

“I’d have to say half the time, no. It’s fun but there’s a lot of stress involved. I have a better time when I go out on someone else’s boat,” he said.

But Hiros said his lighter wallet is soon forgotten on the open water with a warm sun on his back and a cool breeze on his face.

“Every day on the water is a good day,” he said.

Staff writer Elaine Rose contributed to this report.

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