Fishing fleet: An invisible cornerstone of our economy

Jake Beattie Maritime Focus
Posted 4/25/17

Hundreds of people who drive by on their way to and from wherever probably don’t notice, but you might, or at least you could.

Look seaward when you pass Safeway and you’ll see a boatyard …

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Fishing fleet: An invisible cornerstone of our economy

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Hundreds of people who drive by on their way to and from wherever probably don’t notice, but you might, or at least you could.

Look seaward when you pass Safeway and you’ll see a boatyard story that goes beyond the wooden boat identity Port Townsend is famous for.

Below the tall masts of schooners and square riggers are the troll poles, gurdies and net rollers of the fish boats that call on Port Townsend for their winter’s maintenance. Some of their owners live here, and the vessels’ names are better known (Chichagof, Duna, Cape Cleare).

Many come from distant ports, employing and trusting our community to keep their boats afloat. The marine trades constitute the third-largest employer in the county. This is big business for us.

Tim Hoffman of Lowest Hadlock Shipwrights put this way: “Ninety percent of my business is fish boats, and they really don’t get the credit they deserve for what they’ve brought to this place, and I’m talking since the mid-’70s.”

This week, the fishing fleet looks to make up roughly half of the boats in the yard, likely representing more than half of the work from the 300-plus jobs in the Boat Haven.

“Every time you get a downturn in the economy, yacht work evaporates. Commercial fishermen keep coming back because these boats are their business, it’s their livelihood,” said Hoffman.

“The fishermen are the only businesses that use antique equipment, and most of these antique boats are worn out and need work,” Greg Jones, owner and captain of the FV Sea Miner, said with a laugh.

The 900 miles between Sitka, Alaska, and Port Townsend is a long haul.

Jones’ 43-year-old troller wasn’t built for speed, but it makes the trip (round trip: 10 days, $1,500 in fuel) just about every year. Some years, it’s for maintenance; this year, Hoffman is adding a bulbous bow to improve the boat’s fuel economy and slow the motion when it’s pounding into waves.

“They say the ice is going to keep melting, and the seas are going to keep getting bigger,” he said.

Jones lives in Sitka and fishes in the part of Alaska called “Southeast” by the people who live and fish there. Why does he come all this way, spending two months away from home in a rented house, to get his work done here? Why not closer to Sitka? “There’s more people here who do stuff that I need done.”

PT IS FUN PLACE

What about the yards in Seattle? “Those are getting a little expensive, plus Port Townsend’s a fun place to hang out,” said Jones.

“These guys fish up and down the coast; they have a ton of options on where to go,” offered Bob Frank, owner of Admiralty Ship Supply. “Historically, fish boats have come here because it’s been more affordable. The yard rates were cheap, and they could afford to work on their own boats while pros do the hard stuff. It’s like taking your car into the dealer and working on your brakes while the mechanics work on your transmission. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

There’s also camaraderie. “The Blue Moose is a bit of a think tank,” said Blaise Holly, a commercial fisherman and shipwright at Haven Boatworks. “Guys working by themselves can come in, and by the time they’re halfway through their coffee, they’ve gotten a half-dozen different solutions to whatever it is that they’re stuck on.”

What would make more fishermen come? Ideas flow:

“A commercial discount. Even a little bit would mean a lot. It shows intent.”

“If storage was cheaper, I could stay longer. The longer I stay, the more I notice things that need done, and that would piss me off, so I’d have to hire people to fix it.”

“A full hydraulics shop. I have to go to Kent to get some stuff done.”

“Help with the environmental [compliance]. Fishermen are happy to do their part, but we need a better solution than ‘Just don’t do that [type of work].’ We need solutions or we’ll have to go somewhere else.”

The fleet is finishing up its spring work, and one by one, the fishermen will be heading north for the fisheries in Southeast and beyond. Next time you drive by, wish them good luck and a good season. Their work may be over the horizon, but it’s an invisible cornerstone of our economy.

(Jake Beattie is executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. He writes this column monthly for The Leader.)

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