Erling Skaar started worrying about the way fishing boats burn dinosaur juice in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo drove prices up and supplies down. This choked off fuel to Dutch Harbor, the base camp and truck stop for Seattle's Alaska fishing fleet. At the time, Skaar, who’d started out in the Norwegian merchant marine at age 15, was running a new crab boat, the Silver Dolphin, out of Dutch. He started wondering how fishermen might burn less fuel and be less vulnerable to shortages and price hikes. Forty years later, those thoughts have led to an invention that might enable the fishing industry to do just that, not only here but around the world — one more chapter in Seattle’s long history of innovation in this ancient but increasingly tech-heavy industry.
Today, as then, fishing boats burn a lot of fuel. In most businesses, labor is the largest recurring expense; in fishing, it’s diesel. The easiest and perhaps most effective way to save it, Skaar realized, was simply to slow down. “Running full speed, say with a 399 engine, you can make eleven-and-a-half knots and burn 60 to 63 gallons an hour. Slow down to 10 knots per hour and you’ll burn 24 gallons an hour. If everyone in fishing were more disciplined with fuel in Alaska, we could save millions annually.”
For 41 years another Seattle company, FloScan, has been helping fishermen and other boat operators save fuel. It makes onboard, real-time fuel monitors that tell how much they’re burning and when they reach the slow-sipping “sweet spot.” FloScan’s monitors are specially designed for the rigors of marine use, but any driver of a Prius or other monitor-equipped late-model car knows how drastically consumption can vary depending on conditions. Erling and Sten Skaar talk in this YouTube clip about all the savings FloScan helped them realize on their current crab boat, the North American (which starred with Captain Sten in TV’s Deadliest Catch — “stupid show,” snorts father Erling).
But not even all Nordics have the Skaars’ Nordic thrift and discipline. Erling Skaar recalls once running a salmon tender for the giant Ocean Beauty Seafoods. A buddy told him his boats was “too frequent at the fuel dock.” Turned out the captain he’d hired ran full-throttle all the time. “What’s the problem?” the man asked when confronted. “We’re not paying for it.”
“Somebody is,” replied Skaar. And that’s less money they have to pay you.
Also, more soot and carbon dioxide you’re sending up the stack. Skaar professes himself neutral on questions of global warming, but he’s clearly concerned. He’s even more concerned about climate change’s so-called “evil twin,” carbon-driven ocean acidification, which threatens shell-building organisms — not just larval oysters, the celebrated canaries in this coal mine, but the tiny floating snails and crustaceans on which salmon and the rest of the marine food web depend. So much so he attended the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to make sure the fishing community’s fears were heard.
There’s the paradox, and the irony: Fishermen have the most to lose to our uncontrolled mass experiment on the planet’s climate and the ocean’s chemistry. But head for head and dollar for dollar, they’re among the biggest contributors of the emissions driving that experiment. Surely there were other ways besides monitoring fuel use and dialing back speed to help them cut back?
About 12 years ago, Skaar hit on one: the auxiliary power units (APUs), smaller diesel engines that drive the generators that power the refrigeration, navigation, lights and other systems aboard large vessels. On locomotives and long-haul trucks, which are now widely adopting them, APUs are big fuel savers. They let operators turn off their noisy, smoky, fuel-guzzling main motors while parked, to the great relief of the beancounters, not to mention Interbay residents and other railyard neighbors.
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