Wave of new vessels will boost Alaska, Washington shipyards


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The 184-foot freezer longliner Northern Leader is seen under construction at J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. in Tacoma. The vessel, which is 50 percent owned by Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., will be home-ported in Kodiak. A wave of vessel replacement is under way that stands to benefit both Alaska and Washington.

Photo/Duane Anderson/J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp.

Alaska’s fishing fleets are aging, but new vessels are making their way onto the water.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, 1,646 fishing vessels participated in federal fisheries offshore from Alaska in 2010. The majority — more than 900 — were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

The first new vessels operating in Alaska waters will be longliners fishing in the Bering Sea with Alaskan Leader Fisheries’ Northern Leader and Alaska Longline Co.’s Arctic Prowler scheduled to start fishing this spring.

Alaskan Leader Fisheries is jointly owned by the Alaska Leader Group of Lynden, Wash., and Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. BBEDC is one of six Western Alaska Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups that receive a 10 percent annual share of the Bering Sea harvests.

Petersburg-based Alaska Longline Co. also has CDQ connections as a partner with the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association.

The Northern Leader, which will be home-ported in Kodiak, isn’t the result of a vessel replacement program, as its owners already possessed a license for a 184-foot vessel. But when it starts fishing this spring, it will represent a shift to a new, more efficient class of boats in the Bering Sea.

The boat will be the largest in its fleet, according to Alaskan Leader’s Nick Delaney.

The Northern Leader joins three other Alaskan Leader vessels and participates in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod fishery.

The Northern Leader was set for launch Jan. 26 in Washington. The Tacoma-based J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. will finish building the boat once it’s in the water, as it is too large to be finished indoors.

The Northern Leader’s construction was expected to create more than 100 jobs and apprenticeships. It was designed by Seattle-based Jensen Maritime, a naval architecture firm owned by Crowley Marine Corp., and the vessel plan was awarded a New Wave Award at the 2012 Pacific Marine Expo.

Farther north, construction is under way on the 136-foot Arctic Prowler in Ketchikan at Alaska Ship and Drydock. The Arctic Prowler will fish for Pacific cod, sablefish and turbot, in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The Northern Leader and Arctic Prowler construction is the start of what could be a boost for shipyards in Washington and Alaska.

More new ships could be built for the freezer longliner fleet, incentivized by action taken by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in October.

The council’s action increased the allowed maximum length overall for freezer longliners, which was necessary to make replacement an economic investment, said Freezer Longline Coalition’s Executive Director Chad See.

“Ultimately, the replacement plan will allow our boats to become more efficient,” See said.

The current freezer longliners operating in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, are among the old ships in the far north. Many are more than 40 years old, and have seen multiple uses since they were first created, See said. Some were active in World War II, he said.

With age comes safety concerns, and the new ships are expected to be much safer, in part from simple things, like more space for processing and moving about the vessel.

A new freezer longliner likely costs $25 million to $35 million, See said. The longer length means the boats can compete on the world market, processing additional parts of the fish, and new technology means they’ll be more efficient in general, including in fuel-use, See said. The Northern Leader will allow for 100 percent utilization of fish parts.

Amendment 80 fleet

Freezer longliners aren’t the only boats up for replacement.

Amendment 80 vessels, which are catcher-processor trawlers participating in BSAI groundfish fisheries, now have their own motive for replacement: American Fishing Act, or AFA, pollock vessels cannot be used to replace Amendment 80 vessels.

That provision, essentially codifying the intended separation between the two sectors, was included in the Coast Guard reauthorization that was signed into law in December.

Groundfish Forum Executive Director Lori Swanson said that because the AFA vessels have capital that the Amendment 80 fleet can’t match, concerns about AFA entrance made it too risky for Amendment 80 boats to get replaced.

“The biggest thing was knowing who’s going to be fishing in the sector,” Swanson said.

Now that the vessels don’t have to worry about that, 27 permits are associated with vessels that could get replaced, Swanson said.

Amendment 80 vessels fish for certain non-pollock groundfish species, including Atka mackerel, Pacific cod, arrowtooth flounder, flatfish and some rockfish species.

American Fisheries Act vessels are factory trawlers who prosecute pollock in the Bering Sea, a program Swanson described as lucrative and well-managed.

With financial stability more certain, Swanson said vessels are ready for replacement.

“I know of at least one company that has the drawings done,” Swanson said.

Swanson said she thinks here will be at least four or five new vessels in the next five to ten years.

A new boat costs $30 million to $50 million.

“There’s a lot of jobs involved in building one of the boats,” Swanson said.

Cooperative catch

It’s not just regulatory action directly related to vessel replacement that is making new boats a reality.

Rationalization also helps.

In fact, it’s the Alaskan Leader’s participation in a voluntary longliner cooperative is part of what makes it possible for the Northern Leader to be built. The rest is Alaskan Leader’s structure, which gives the multi-family-CDQ entity more shoulders to carry risks and responsibilities.

Alaskan Leader has four licenses for the BSAI Pacific cod sector, which come with a certain amount of catch each year. The sector hasn’t been rationalized, but the voluntary cooperative serves a similar purpose: ending the race for fish by having predetermined amounts of catch.

Without the race, Delaney said there’s more incentive to keep the whole fish.

“You’re incentivized to add value to what you have to catch.”

Delaney said that the Northern Leader will be able to carry 1.8 million pounds, more than the 1.1 million capacity of Alaskan Leader’s Bristol Leader, the largest vessel in the longline fleet right now.

That means it — along with Alaskan Leader’s other three vessels — can keep more of the fish they catch.

“We’re not catching any more fish, but we’re utilizing more,” Delaney said.

Cod heads make up about 30 percent of a fish’s weight, but are usually tossed overboard. Now, the Northern Leader will have space for those.

Alaskan Leader will send them, frozen, to a cooperative in Iceland that dries them. Then, they’re sold. Nigeria and Ghana are the two biggest markets.

“It’s a very robust African market,” Delaney said.

Delaney said the Northern Leader will prosecute other fish as well, but its main directed fishery is Pacific cod.

Processing and carrying capacity aren’t the only significant features on the Northern Leader.

The boat will use azimuth pods, which work with the propeller to help with navigation, so the boat will move more easily, and be easier to control.

The ship will also run on a diesel-electric system, using diesel to generate power, with a switchboard that more efficiently distributes electricity throughout the vessel.

“It’s fairly well-developed technology, it’s just never been deployed in the fishing industry,” Delaney said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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