Tug-of-war grows over portion of Seattle's fishing fleet

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

SEATTLE - A tug-of-war over a portion of the Seattle-based fishing fleet is heating up.

Coastal Villages Region Fund, the largest Alaska-based seafood company, has moved four boats from Seattle to Seward for the off-season and hopes to someday relocate the rest of the fleet. It currently has about two dozen vessels.

Coastal Villages is a federally-created community development group that supports 20 tiny, impoverished towns on the Bering Sea. As Coastal Villages gained fishing quotas, it invested in companies that own boats, and eventually bought a controlling interest.

"It's a natural fit to try to bring our boats here to Alaska," said Dawson Hoover of Coastal Villages.

The primary reason is to bring more jobs to Alaskans, something Coastal Villages calls "Alaskanization."

The City of Seward, which is working to develop a home port for Coastal Villages, also estimates a fuel savings of $75,000 per vessel by avoiding the round trip to Seattle for maintenance.

Seward already has a shipyard, and is working to secure state and federal money to expand a breakwater and add docks. There is no timeline, and city officials say the final cost will depend on the market demand.

Advocates of home-porting more fishing vessels in Alaska acknowledge a build-out could easily take a generation.

 "I'd be naive and foolish to think little Seward would go heads up against Seattle on every facet of marine support," said Seward Assistant City Manager Ron Long.

This spring, Pacific Fishermen Shipyard and Electric in Ballard did maintenance work on one of the Coastal Villages vessels, the Camai. General Manager Doug Dixon expects to lose that business someday if the owners move their entire fleet north. Dixon says as many as a dozen shipyard employees and 40 subcontractors worked on the boat.

 "You're losing a lot when you lose one five-crewmember vessel," Dixon said.

No one has suggested all of Seattle's fishing industry is at risk of moving to Alaska. About 500 fishing vessels are based in Seattle. The Port of Seattle estimates the fishing industry is worth about $5 billion and generates up to 15,000 jobs. Seattle has many advantages over Alaska ports, including better weather, freshwater moorage, and a vibrant, sophisticated support network of marine businesses that has been in place for more than a century. The Port of Seattle counts just 12 fishing vessels that have so far relocated to Alaska.

Port engineer Jeff Kutz has worked on fishing vessels in both Seattle and Seward. In Seward, he says, "it's often times very difficult for me to perform my work." Kutz says Seattle has superior access to supplies, skilled workers, and government inspectors.

Fishing boat owner John Crowley agrees.

"Things happen here in Seattle better than anyplace I’m acquainted with," he said.

 Crowley is originally from Alaska and moved his boat to Seattle for milder weather.

 "We decided if it was a good place for the boat it was a good place for us too," Crowley said. He now lives in Seattle.