By Mark Potter, NBC News correspondent
Islamorada, Florida -- Offshore charter fishing has long been an important and colorful part of Florida's economy and its history. The lure of a day-trip to the Gulf Stream draws sportsmen and tourists from around the world and is an integral part of the local lore involving novelists Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and other intrepid fishermen.
As you'll see in our report tonight on NBC Nightly News, however, the charter industry in Florida and around the country is suffering economic strains, particularly because of high fuel prices. As a result, the industry is in danger at some level of pricing itself out of business.
Just five years ago, a charter trip to deep water to chase billfish, mahi mahi, snapper and other tough species cost about $900 a day. Now, in the Florida Keys, it costs an average of $1,400, mainly due to rising diesel prices.
In the Carolinas and other places where the charter captains have to make longer runs to find the fishing grounds, the trips are even more expensive.
Here's the math: A year ago a gallon of diesel cost about $3.00 a gallon. Now it's more than $5.00. On an average day, the boats burn 100 to 150 gallons on their round-trips to deep water. That's anywhere from $500 to $750 a day in fuel costs alone. Then there's the bait, ice, crew fees, and boat maintenance. Not much left at the end of the day.
What this means is that charter captains working to feed their families are feeling the pinch. Tourist bookings in the Keys are off anywhere from 15 to 40 percent. The wealthier clients are still signing up, but the average guy from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale hoping to gather his buddies for a day at sea is backing off now. Given his own economic problems, the higher charter prices are simply floating out of reach.
There's a well-known boat at Bud n' Mary's Marine in Islamorada called the Catch-22, and that's exactly where a lot of captains say they find themselves. They can't afford to eat the fuel costs, but they also know there's a limit to how high they can raise their prices. They're already suffering a drop-off in clientele.
You will hear from some of these captains tonight and from a marina owner. And we will have wonderful pictures for you that clearly illustrate the lure of the deep, a lifestyle and long-time sport now feeling the economic pain.
photos: Stephanie Himango, NBC News producer