By JEREMIAH O’HAGAN For Anacortes American October 5, 2016
Commissioning a new ship costs a bundle.
Ask Helena Park, CEO and founder of Fisherman’s Finest in Kirkland.
She has hired Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes to build a ship unlike one built in the United States in more than 30 years.
Ms. Park, as everyone calls her, came to the U.S. from South Korea as a high school exchange student in 1973. She began working in commercial fishing in 1982. Three and a half decades later, at age 60, she’s looking at an $80 million bill for the building of America’s Finest, which will replace both ships in her fleet.
Park’s goal is about more than catching fish. She does that already with the vessels she has, and though they are aging, they’re in fine shape.
“My vision is much larger than my company,” she said.
Park wants to see the U.S. get up to speed in the world of commercial fishing ships — to help the fishing industry and everything tied to it.
“We are 30 years behind the rest of the world,” Park said. “I am really trying to change the entire ship-building industry. I’ve been in this business for 34 years. Thirty-four years of financial discipline have brought me to this place where I am allowed to do this. I want to make a path for others to follow.”
Dakota Creek Industries expects to complete the 262-foot ship in fall 2017.
It has a state-of-the-art Norwegian design and is one of only a handful in the world. But the most special thing about it is that it will be a new fishing trawler.
“It’s the first (U.S.-constructed vessel) completely designed and built for the purpose of fishing in the North Pacific since 1989,” said Liz Stout, who is overseeing the project for shipbuilder Dakota Creek.
That’s because the U.S. government took control of the fisheries in the late 1990s. It divided them into shares and gave quotas to licensed commercial fishermen. No additional ships were allowed from then on. If a company commissioned a new ship, it had to get rid of an old one.
The government action came after a dramatic increase in commercial fishing spurred by a federal law passed in 1976 giving the U.S. full control of resources, including fish, within 200 nautical miles of its coastlines.
Sponsored by U.S. Sens. Warren Magnuson of Washington and Ted Stevens of Alaska, it was called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976.
Fish in the area became restricted U.S. goods, and an earlier federal law stated that only ships with a U.S. flag could transport U.S. goods in this country’s waters. That kept competitors’ ships out.
Suddenly, the U.S. had control of its nautical resources but no ships with which to fish.
“In the 1980s, there’s a race to build a fleet,” said Dennis Moran, president of Fisherman’s Finest. But building ships is both expensive and time-consuming, so the “used ship” market was booming.
“People would find old (U.S.) boats, retrofit them and run up to catch fish,” Moran said.
During this time, only one ship, a freezer trawler named Starbound, was expressly built for fishing. It was also built at Dakota Creek and delivered in 1989, Stout said.
In the 1990s, as commercial fishing ramped up its appetite and techniques, there was also a “confluence of computer power and scientific biological models,” Moran said. The result was a lot of successful fishing.
“We didn’t have the capacity to overfish until we had the technology to understand and manage fishing,” Moran said.
It’s lucky, he said, that Alaska’s rich waters were discovered relatively late. As the dangers of overfishing became apparent, the government stepped in again.
The American Fisheries Act of 1998 slowed the fishing and ended the race for more ships by stopping fleets from expanding.
Rather than build costly replacement ships, most commercial fishing companies kept what they had. As a result, the industry’s ships — and technology — are aging.
Though Park has kept her ships in good shape, both were built in 1979, and she is looking ahead at a future that is no longer about a race but about sustaining a resource and industry over time.
Much as farmers depend on providers of farm equipment to grow and flourish, fishing and shipbuilding rely on each other to keep their industries afloat. Park has no business without fish, so she wants her entire industry to develop more efficient ways of doing their jobs, such as using more of the catch and reducing unintended by-catch.
By installing a high-tech processor on board American’s Finest, Park is hoping to turn what is now waste (about 30 percent of the catch) into revenue.
The processor “takes that 30 percent and grinds it into fishmeal,” Moran said.
The fishmeal, which comes out of the processor as a dry powder, is pressed into pellets and sold as feed for farmed fish.
Other efficiencies will be gained, too. Right now, each ship in Park’s fleet runs two diesel engines. America’s Finest will run one four-stroke diesel, made in Germany.
“We’re reducing our carbon footprint by 80 percent,” Moran said. “We can get to carbon neutral by planting a few trees.”
“I am a steward of public resources,” Park said. “I have a moral obligation to reinvest.”
She wants to “turn fish into ships,” which creates jobs in other industries — steel manufacturing, electrical engineering and shipyards. Not least of all, Dakota Creek.
She hopes to “leave behind a shipyard that’s healthy and ready to produce more ships.”
In the 30-plus years since it built its last fishing vessel, Dakota Creek has built plenty of other ships. In the past decades, shipbuilding has gone “from handshakes to contracts,” Stout said.
The shipyard has progressed and evolved with the specifications of the ships it is building, and it is poised to move forward once again.
“Like most industries, this one cycles,” Stout said. “From fishing to offshore to research vessels. Now, the cycle seems to be taking a turn again. We hope this will be the first of many (fishing ships) to come.”