Senators tour Seattle boat to study loans for new fishing fleet

By:  The Seattle Times – Coral Garnick
Source: The Seattle Times

Weaving through the passageways of the Blue Pacific, a 165-foot fishing boat that catches, processes and freezes Alaskan cod, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Mark Begich of Alaska found themselves one step closer to understanding the ins and outs of the fishing industry that closely connects their two states.

Fishing and seafood processing make up more than 60 percent of the $30 billion maritime industry in Washington and accounts for 33,500 jobs, according to a report released last month. But, as the industry continues to grow, ship builders are finding it difficult to finance new boats, which can cost more than $50 million apiece.

“Imagine if you could just replace the word agriculture with fishing and get those same benefits,” Begich said about legislation such as the farm bill.

“If we labeled this another industry, like manufacturing, this type of issue would be front and center in the sense of financing mechanisms,” he continued. “But, we call it maritime or fishing and people move it over to the side.”

Because Washington and Alaska are so closely intertwined when it comes to the fishing industry, both senators serve on the Senate Oceans Subcommittee, which is responsible for legislation and oversight of marine fisheries, Coast Guard, ocean policy and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While standing in the processing factory section of the F/V Blue Pacific on Thursday morning, the senators heard about the steps involved in rebuilding the freezer longliner owned by Seattle-based Blue North Fisheries. After nearly five months of work, the 70-year-old boat is going to be finished in less than two weeks at a cost of $800,000.

“The fishing industry is tenacious. They will take any piece of machinery and make it work,” Begich said after the tour. “They go from one season to the next, patching up what they have to.”

Even though the fishing industry is great at rebuilding old ships, maritime industry leaders say it would be more competitive globally if financing were available to build new, more efficient boats.

Blue North Fisheries is in the process of building a sixth boat that will cost more than $35 million. Finding the financial backing for such a project was difficult, said Kenny Down, president and CEO of the company.

Down and Kristian Uri, general manager of Fishermen’s Finest, both explained during a discussion period how shipbuilders could put more energy into building a new fishing fleet if low-interest, long-term loans were available to them.

“We’ll finance almost anything in this country, but ship building is like pulling pennies,” Begich said.

“The maritime industry is a vital part of our economy and we want it to get the attention it deserves,” he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has identified maritime as one of the state’s key industries. In October he appointed former Port of Seattle executive Steve Sewell to the Department of Commerce as economic-development director for the state’s maritime industry sector.

Sewell said he agrees that federal financing is key to growing the state’s maritime industry but also hopes there are ways to assist on the state level.

“I call the maritime industry the stealth industry because too few people understand the importance,” he said during the session.