Fishy business

Highly regulated, and profitable, commercial fishing is a survivor of the resource-based economy that once dominated the Pacific Northwest.
Crosscut archive image.

Can we clean up our waters enough to eat 175 grams of fish a day?

Highly regulated, and profitable, commercial fishing is a survivor of the resource-based economy that once dominated the Pacific Northwest.

Editor's Note: Part two of our "Thanks for all the fish" series, which looks into the billion-dollar commercial fishing industry that has defined and sustained our fair city since its founding. Today, Steve Dunphy explores the still-potent economic impact of the region's fisheries. What, you didn't know this city was built on cod?

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Seattle’s economy was based on natural resources and the processing of them. Timber from the region’s vast forests was turned into lumber.  Wheat and produce were milled and canned for consumption elsewhere. Coal from places with names like Black Diamond fueled industry and was exported to other areas. Fish from Alaska was processed in the canneries that lined the waterfront.

As late as the 1960s Seattle remained dependent on resource-based industries — despite the fact that a modest builder of commercial aircraft had recently introduced a global game-changer called the “jetliner.” In 1962, as the Seattle World’s Fair prepared the region for its debut on the international stage, dozens of sawmills still operated from Everett to Tacoma.

Crosscut archive image.

Today most of that resource-based industry is gone, eclipsed by coffee, software, biotech, computer games, sophisticated retail operations, global trade and, of course, aerospace. But one of those original industries still flourishes: fishing. Despite all the changes the Seattle economy has been through in the past century, this one industry has endured. As one fisher put it: “The salmon still swim the same way.”

What makes the fishing industry here unique is that it still reflects at least some of the characteristics that made it important a century ago. It remains the mainstay of a “thick layer of highly paid blue-collar employment,” writes Michael Luis in his book on Seattle history, Century 21 City. A fishery worker can still make a good salary without a college degree; a college student can amass $40,000-plus as a part-time summer worker. Hard work, to be sure — and dangerous — but the potential to make a good living is still there.

How big is the commercial fishing industry?

Trying to answer that question is difficult because the industry is so varied and complex. There is fin fishing, the largest part of the industry and the one this story will focus on, especially the Alaska piece. There is the shellfish industry, exemplified by companies such as Taylor Shellfish, which employs about 500 people and farms nearly 11,000 acres of shellfish beds in Washington and British Columbia. There is a thriving sports fishery in Puget Sound and along the coast, which supports charter boats, bait shops and retail institutions such as 67-year-old Patrick’s Fly Shop in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. And there are also tribal fishing operations, which grew out of the famous Boldt Decision, the historic 1974 ruling that reaffirmed the rights of Washington's native tribes to fish in their traditional places.

Crosscut archive image.One estimate values the commercial fishing industry at nearly $6 billion overall, employing more than 10,000 workers. In addition to the traditional fishing jobs — captains, deck hands and the like — there are shipwrights and welders, pipefitters and engineers, specialists in engine/propulsion repair and experts in bilge cleaning, chandlers, insurance brokers, restaurant owners and workers and the teams of people who manage and maintain the fishing ports. Fishermen's Terminal in Magnolia, home to Seattle’s fishing fleet, provides moorage, of course, but also showers, laundry and storage facilities. A 2007, Port of Seattle study showed that fishing-related activity at Fishermen’s Terminal (Terminal 91) and the nearby Maritime Industrial Center generated 5,607 direct jobs and total revenues of more than $800 million. And that’s not counting the commercial value of the fish.

Characters, companies and change

Commercial fishing in the Pacific Northwest includes David Harsila (above), who owns two boats that fish the waters around Bristol Bay, and Kenny Down, President and CEO of Blue North Fisheries, a multi-million-dollar fishing and trading company. There is Marco Global, which revolutionized purse-seine fishing with the invention of its net-hauling “Powerblock” in the 1950s and remains a major supplier of fishing and marine equipment. On the north side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal there is Icicle Seafoods. One of the region’s largest seafood companies, Icicle began in the winter of 1965 when a group of local fishermen and cannery workers purchased the Pacific American Fisheries cannery in Petersburg, Alaska.

“The fishing is really better now than it was in the ’70s,” says Harsila, who has been at it for more than 40 years. Early this summer, Harsila took delivery of a new gillnetter he’ll use in Bristol Bay. The new all-metal vessel, built by Strongback Boats in Bellingham, joins the 32-foot wooden boat Harsila has used for decades.

Crosscut archive image.

Blue North’s Kenny Down (above) just spent about $35 million to build one of the most environmentally-friendly, technologically-advanced fishing vessels in the world. The innovative “green” boat, which will be ready in late 2014, was specifically developed for Blue North’s specialty: catching Bering Sea cod with a hook and line. The new ship was three years in the planning, says Mike Burns, Blue North’s vice president. It included several trips to Norway, a world leader in green boat building.

“We brought those ideas back, and added some improvements,” says Burns, including a molded hull that slips through the water easier and hybrid (diesel-electric) engines. The new vessel is being built by Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes. Blue North may order up a second boat later this year. “In the world we are living in, everyone is more aware of resources,” says Mike Burns, “With a resource like fishing it is even more so.  Depending on the resource is vital to us, and it is important for us to keep the resource healthy.”

Blue North is a large company, operating five ships in the Bering Sea and catching about 20,000 metric tons of cod each year. Fishing is just one Blue North division. It also is a global trading company, selling its own catch and the catches of other fishermen around the world. Burns said consumers in Japan, Brazil, and Europe are willing to pay premium prices for fish caught with a hook because of the quality. Fish caught by trawlers, which drag nets along the bottom of the ocean, can get pretty beaten up.

Blue North is part of shipbuilding boomlet. Alaskan Leader Fisheries, based in Seattle and Lynden, in Whatcom County, also has a new ship, the Northern Leader. Alaska Longline Company’s new boat, Arctic Prowler, started fishing this spring.

The new boats are just one small sign of change in the fishing industry. Fishing is more carefully regulated now, which tends to eliminate the once wild swings in catch and prices, and its consumers are more demanding and discriminating. Much more of the salmon catch goes into the fresh market instead of a can. Witness the annual frenzy around Copper River salmon when that run begins in May. Cod fishing in the Bering Sea is shifting too, as companies like Blue North put a premium on long-line catch.

The Alaska Connection

When we talk about commercial fishing in Puget Sound, we are really talking about commercial fishing in Alaska. While most of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is home-ported in Seattle, the entire Alaska fishing industry is much larger. Recent reports show that in 2011 the Alaskan fishery accounted for nearly $6.5 billion and 120,000 U.S. jobs, more than 34,000 of them in Washington State. Some 10,000 Washington residents (chiefly Seattleites) worked in Alaska in 2011. 

“Seattle is an important hub for the Alaska seafood industry, as the region’s shipyards service most of the large and medium-sized vessels that fish in Alaska,” said the report. Seattle is also a hub for the industry’s critical financial support, such as banking and insurance services, as well as fishing-related supplies, processing and export. And Alaska’s seafood industry is global.

According to a 2009 report by Northern Economics of Anchorage (commissioned by the Marine Conservation Alliance, At-sea Processors and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association) if Alaska were a nation, it would place ninth among seafood producing countries. The Bering Sea pollock, cod and other bottom-feeding fisheries rank among the largest in the world.

“Alaska’s seafood industry has played a major role in the Alaska’s history and remains a major part of Alaska’s economy today, with more jobs than any other private sector [industry] spread from the biggest cities to the smallest villages,” said David Benton, then the executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, in the report. Indeed, the seafood industry is the largest private-sector employer in the state, creating 56,600 direct and 22,000 indirect jobs annually. That’s more than the oil, gas and mining industries combined.

Home port Seattle

While longstanding and important, Seattle’s commercial fishing industry is modest by comparison. It lacks the economic impact of Boeing, Microsoft or other large players on the local economic scene. A 2008 study of Seattle’s “maritime cluster,” sponsored by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, showed fishing and seafood processing generating about 30,000 jobs in the Seattle area. But the report also noted that fishing employment figures are hard to come by.

There is no official census of how many boats are based here. Fishermen’s Terminal moors about 500, but according to the report “some of these vessels may be home-ported elsewhere.” In addition, not all the workers on those boats live in the area, even though the state counts them as residents, and many vessel owners use their home address as the address of their fishing business, even though their boat may be home-ported elsewhere.

The city’s Economic Development report also found that most commercial fishing vessels moored in this area actually do their fishing in the Gulf of Alaska. Due to higher fuel costs in recent years, local boats may be away from home for months or even years at a time, only returning to Seattle for periodic repairs that are too expensive in Alaska. Kenneth Lyles, senior terminal manager for the Port of Seattle, says that although only a dozen or so ships have given up moorage in the past few years, “exit interviews” confirm that fuel costs are the chief reason for leaving.

Crosscut archive image.

Homeport for Seattle's commercial fishing fleet. Credit: Sarah Radmer

The Coastal Villages Region Fund, a nonprofit advocate for native fishing, has proposed home-porting some of its vessels in Seward, Alaska, as early as next year. The move has been described as the start of a tug of war between Alaska and Washington, but officials here believe the extensive infrastructure in Seattle will keep the bulk of the fishing fleet here for some time to come.

Consistency counts

Which brings us to one of the interesting parts of Seattle’s commercial fishing industry: its consistency. Fishing has remained remarkably stable in recent years in terms of employment and catch size. Prices seem to have held steady, too.

“It’s a regulated industry,” says 40-year veteran David Harsila. Federal, state and tribal regulators set the number of fish that can be caught based on the estimated size of each run. Even this regulation process creates jobs. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) at Sand Point, which monitors compliance with federal law, including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1996, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, employs more than 300 people.

Fishing is one of Seattle’s oldest and most important industries. Fishermen’s Terminal is preparing to celebrate its centennial next year. “We're hoping for another century to come," says Peter McGraw, a Port of Seattle spokesperson.

Given the healthy state of the industry these days, Seattle fisherman will likely be hard at work in 2114. “The industry has aged, matured,” says Blue North's Mike Burns. “In the late ’90s we started to rationalize the industry and stopped some of the craziness. It is now controlled, safer and stable.” 

A less swashbuckling business perhaps. But a smarter one.

Next week: Knute Berger on how a little letter from a Washington cod fisherman led to an historic (Seward's) Folly.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.