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Shipyards for Alaska: Modernizing the Fleet

Alaskans, as builders and owners, help launch powerful new class of fishing vessels

The longliner Arctic Prowler is the first large commercial fishing vessel ever built in Alaska.

The longliner Arctic Prowler is the first large commercial fishing vessel ever built in Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Vigor Industrial

Inside a colossal assembly and production hall in Ketchikan, with the newly built commercial fishing vessel Arctic Prowler towering over a patriotic stage, Governor Sean Parnell spoke to a special achievement for Alaska.

“This is no ordinary vessel, this Arctic Prowler, because it actually is symbolic of so much,” Parnell said. “It’s proof that Alaskans can and will build Alaska-tough boats and ships to handle these stormy seas.”

The boat has been undergoing final outfitting since the October 5, 2013, christening ceremony at the Ketchikan Shipyard and is expected to start fishing soon.

The Arctic Prowler is one in a wave of new fishing vessels being built to modernize one of Alaska’s main industrial fleets. The boats, known as freezer longliners, target predominantly Pacific cod, among the state’s most valuable fish species.

These new boats are fearsome fish killers—the Arctic Prowler will have the capability of fishing fifty-six thousand hooks per day.

The building boom reflects, on several levels, the continuing evolution of the Alaska fishing industry.

First, the new boats are the product of a fundamental shift in the way the Bering Sea cod fishery works, with Congress playing a big role in making it happen.

Second, the construction signifies the growing role of Alaskans in owning major fishing vessels and in building them. Until recently, vessel ownership and construction was anchored almost entirely out of state.

Third, the new longliners also advance efforts to make Alaska commercial fishing more “green,” or environmentally friendly, by reducing pollution and fish waste.

Finally, the boats are expected to enhance efficiency and safety for fishermen at sea, replacing vessels from the World War II era.

 

The longliner Northern Leader, which is now actively fishing in Alaska waters.

Photo courtesy of Alaskan Leader Fisheries

A First for Alaska

Three new freezer longliners are nearing completion or have already started working.

The biggest and most sophisticated, the Blue North, is under construction in Washington state and is slated to go into service in early 2015. The boat is 191 feet long and will cost around $36 million.

A second boat, the 184-foot Northern Leader, was completed in Tacoma last year and already has begun fishing off Alaska.

The Arctic Prowler is the smallest of the three boats at 136 feet. But it’s nevertheless a large and powerful vessel and represents a major project for the state-owned Ketchikan Shipyard. Portland-based Vigor Industrial has operated the Ketchikan yard since 2012.

In fact, the Arctic Prowler is the first large commercial fishing vessel ever built in Alaska, Vigor and the boat’s owner say.

It’s also the first vessel constructed in the Ketchikan yard’s new seventy thousand-square-foot assembly and production hall, where Parnell and a large crowd of well-wishers gathered to christen the boat.

Petersburg commercial fishing titan John Winther had a lot to do with choosing the Ketchikan yard to build the Arctic Prowler. Winther, who died in 2012, was a partner in the boat’s owner, Alaska Longline LLC.

Winther was “a great believer in Alaska,” says Larry Cotter, a business associate. Winther had served on the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which acts as landlord for the Ketchikan Shipyard.

He saw no reason a big fishing boat couldn’t be built in Alaska, and when the Ketchikan yard put in the low bid, Cotter says, “We were willing to give Ketchikan a shot.”

Parnell, in his speech at the christening ceremony, drew applause when he noted some 98 percent of the workforce on the Arctic Prowler job were from Ketchikan and Saxman.

“That’s worth clapping for,” the governor said. “I think this vessel is proof that this shipyard is ready to build more Alaska-tough, Alaska-class vessels.”

Increasing shipbuilding jobs is certainly Vigor’s goal at Ketchikan, company spokesman Brian Mannion says.

The Arctic Prowler was “a big first for us and for the state of Alaska,” he says.

The project wasn’t without its difficulties, including cost and schedule overruns. Vigor and the vessel owner went to mediation on certain issues.

The end product was a well-constructed vessel, Cotter says. “It’s a damn fine boat,” he says. “It’s going to do very well.”

 

CDQ Investment

Cotter heads the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. The Juneau-based nonprofit is one of six Alaska-based companies that manage federally designated “community development quotas,” or commercial fishing rights, on behalf of villages along the Bering Sea coast.

Since the CDQ (Community Development Quota) program’s start in 1992, the six companies have worked to build ownership in the major fleets fishing the Bering Sea, one of the nation’s richest seafood sources.

The Arctic Prowler represents a continuation of CDQ investment in top vessels, with Cotter’s company holding a 25 percent stake in the boat’s owner, Alaska Longline.

Another CDQ company, Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, owns a 50 percent stake in Alaskan Leader Fisheries, which ordered the new longliner Northern Leader.

J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding, a long-established shipyard in Tacoma, built the Northern Leader, touted as one of the largest and most innovative commercial fishing vessels made in the United States in twenty years.

“I’m proud that Alaskans led the way on this project,” Robin Samuelsen, board chairman of Alaskan Leader Fisheries and the Bristol Bay CDQ company, said in July 2013 after delivery of the new boat. “It shows our determination to make long-term investments in Alaska’s fisheries that will provide economic benefits to our people and communities for many years to come.”

 

Clean and Innovative

Freezer longliners deploy lengthy strings of baited hooks for catching Pacific cod and other species such as sablefish. Once hauled aboard, the fish are processed, frozen, and packed in a factory within the boat.

Longlining is considered a relatively “clean” form of fishing compared to other techniques such as bottom trawling, which can damage seafloor habitat and kill non-target species such as crab.

Work aboard a freezer longliner can be tough. On most boats, crewmen must work outdoors on deck to haul aboard the hooked fish.

The Blue North, now under construction at the Dakota Creek Industries shipyard at Anacortes, Washington, will provide a new level of comfort and safety for fishermen with its “moonpool” feature—an opening in the belly of the boat through which the longline can be retrieved.

This internal haul station will be a first in the United States, and means crewmen will “no longer be exposed to rough seas and freezing temperatures for hours on end,” says the boat’s owner, Seattle-based Blue North Fisheries.

Designed by a Norwegian firm, Skipsteknisk, the new Blue North longliner also will allow crews to work toward 100 percent utilization of fish parts that currently go to waste.

“To accomplish this, every consumable product will be retained—including the liver, stomach, roe, milt, and head,” the owner says. “Currently, many hook-and-line fleets that process onboard only use the dressed fish, or 50 percent of the entire weight; the rest of the fish is ground up and discharged overboard, due to a lack of space, refrigeration capacity, or onboard labor.”

The Blue North also will have lower air pollution emissions and will burn fuel more efficiently.

The new boat will replace the old Blue North, a rusting hulk now mothballed in Seattle. That vessel, which began life in 1945 as a Navy yard oiler, is destined for scrap, says Kenny Down, Blue North president.

 

The Blue North, an old cod freezer longliner built in 1945. The vessel is currently moored in Seattle and most likely headed for the scrapyard. Inset: Artist’s rendering of a brilliant new replacement longliner, also named the Blue North, now under construction. 

Photo © Wesley Loy / Rendering courtesy of Blue North Fisheries

Fishery Revolution

Construction of the new boats does not mean the cod catch will increase. Federal regulators set annual quotas based on scientific assessments of the fish stock, not the number or size of fishing vessels.

If anything, the vessel construction boom is likely to reduce the number of freezer longliners, as the new boats will allow for retirement of smaller, older, and less efficient vessels.

The Bering Sea cod fishery is one of Alaska’s largest annual fish harvests, and the freezer longline fleet controls a large share of it. For 2014, the total allowable catch in the Bering Sea is 246,897 metric tons.

According to the Freezer Longline Coalition, a lobby group that represents the more than thirty freezer longline vessels, the fleet’s cod catch generates between $150 million and $200 million in annual export revenues.

The boat building is coming about because of a revamp in how the Bering Sea cod fishery operates. For many years, the harvest was a “race for fish” as boats competed against one on the water. It was an inefficient and wasteful style of fishing.

Beginning in 2010, the fleet switched to a cooperative style of fishing, with boats holding their own catch shares. Congress passed legislation to enable the cooperative.

The end of racing brought stability and the financial confidence to replace boats in what Down called “the oldest fleet in the Bering Sea,” and one of the last to convert to catch shares.

Journalist Wesley Loy writes from Anchorage.

This first appeared in the June 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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