Seattle Chamber of Commerce Alaska Business Forum: “Rebuilding the North Pacific Fishing Fleet”

The American North Pacific and Bering Sea fishing fleet is aging; the majority of vessels going to Alaska are over 30 years old, with some built in 1940s.


At the Alaska Business Forum in Seattle on June 4, efforts were made to answer the following key questions: (1) How did we get here? (2) How is it that the richest fishery in the world is being fished by old and sometimes dilapidated boats?


Stephen B. Johnson of Garvey Schubert Barer, a Puget Sound attorney who has worked with NOAA, the National Marine Fishery Service, and other fishing entities, spoke about the evolution of this problem.


The Magnuson-Stevens Act (first passed by Congress in 1976, the 2015 reauthorization bill was adopted by the U.S. House on June 1) brought many American boats to the Pacific Northwest, displacing Japanese, Russian, Korean, and a few Polish boats from the rich fisheries of the Bering Sea. Johnson described the period between 1976 and 1990 as the “Race for Fish.”


The system in place at that time was not a quota system like today, so boats could fish for unlimited amounts. This led to a fear of a fishery collapse if more restrictive management was not put into place, Johnson explained. He described the fear as a “decimation of the fishery and vessels.” The first step in controlling this was to limit the number of vessels in the region, in addition to limiting their size. Furthermore, catch limits were instituted, based on previous catch amounts.


After a while a “thaw” began: fishers began coming back, Johnson explained. The “new” boats were repurposed oil boats from the Gulf of Mexico. This was a less expensive option for entering a sector with an extremely high startup cost, but the boats were often flat-bottomed and not ideal for the rough Bering Sea. Many of these boats are still in operation today. With a quota system in place, the focus of the industry turned to efficiency.


Because of this, the North Pacific fishing industry is trying to replace the old boats. Johnson said the factors driving replacement are the quota system, removal of legal impediments to fishing (“thaw”), stricter Coast Guard regulations, and the high cost of maintaining old boats.

The old age of the boats is an illustration of the high expense of replacing vessels. Boats have to be in a serious state of disrepair before it is economically viable to begin replacing them. Data provided by Peter Philips of the Fishermen’s News suggested the total replacement cost for the whole fleet would be $15 billion. A fleet-wide replacement is extremely unlikely, but the figure illustrates the amount of money that is tied up in the North Pacific fishing fleet.


Kristian Uri of Fisherman’s Finest, a fishing company which operates in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, discussed his company’s plans to construct the first carbon-neutral trawler. It would have high efficiency diesel engines, automated product production, and no wasted oil or fish meal. Its engines will be regulated by a computer and will allow the captain to increase fuel efficiency by dialing in as much power as required by the task at hand. Uri said the trawler fleet is the lowest emitting sector in the northern fisheries, and this vessel would make it even lower. Further, the motors for all of the onboard equipment will be electric rather than hydraulic.


Using European ships as models, Fisherman’s Finest worked out the ideal dimensions for the vessel so that it can remain as efficient as possible while still having all of the desired capabilities. This included the ability to process and freeze the catch on board as well as palletize the product. In port, the vessel will be able to offload 80 tons per hour with a crew of three, twice as much as the older vessels. In addition, the new vessel will use the best available technology to make progress on the full utilization of North Pacific and Bering Sea fisheries.


Uri emphasized that the North Pacific fleet needs to modernize and catch up with the rest of the world. He said that new ships and training the crews to use the new equipment are preferable to continuing with old practices. While new ships are expensive, he said the cost of revitalizing and repairing the company’s U.S. INTREPID exceeded the cost of building a new vessel.


Uri said all sectors need to replace their aging boats, and he hopes the efforts of Fisherman’s Finest will prompt others to modernize with them.


The final speaker was Grant Fosheim, of Vigor Industrial, a Northwest company that specializes in ship repair, refitting, and industrial processes. Vigor has shipyards along the Pacific Northwest coast from Oregon to Alaska.


Vigor is new to the field of ship refitting, but Fosheim sees it as a growing sector. One reason for this is currently rising fish prices. Fosheim said the development of the industry could increase if shipyards and design companies like theirs were brought in from the start. Vigor sees North Pacific fishing fleet development as a growing sector and hopes to be a “jumping off point for the recapitalization of the North Pacific fleet.”


A representative of Banner Bank asked Fosheim who their customers were, and if there is a big enough market for their type of services. Fosheim responded that more fishing interests were coming to them as fish prices rise, and his company would continue this focus.