Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ports Offer Vital Link for Wild Seafood Feeding Millions

By Margaret Bauman

From the shores of Oregon and Washington State to the small fishing communities dotting Alaska’s vast coastline, ports and harbors are a vital link in getting millions of pounds of fresh seafood to markets around the world.

Every year crews aboard thousands of commercial fishing vessels of all sizes visit these ports, large and small, to offload or transfer their perishable cargo, arrange for maintenance and repair of their vessels and pick up supplies.

Awaiting them on shore are shipping industry veterans ranging from the likes of Steve Barkemeyer, the boat yard manager at the Port of Astoria, Oregon, to Marty Owen, port director/harbormaster at the Port of Kodiak, and Sitka harbormaster Stan Eliason.

On a cold spring day in early April, Eliason, a self-proclaimed big supporter of commercial fisheries, was busy dealing with the lucrative sac roe herring fishery, and several dozen vessels waiting for the next opening in the biggest sac roe fishery to date, with a guideline harvest level of 29,000 tons of the little silvery fish.

“They’re rafted out three to five deep,” said Eliason, whose enthusiasm was understandable. “We get a large portion of their fish tax and that is a big part of our budget,” he said.

For the port of Sitka, like most other ports, fish taxes and port user fees provide the millions of dollars in income necessary to keep ports up to date.

The biggest challenge for the port of Sitka at the moment, said Eliason, is major maintenance on infrastructure that’s just getting old.

Sitka, on the west coast of Baranof Island, lies some 255 nautical miles southwest of Juneau, the state capital, and 544 nautical miles southeast of Kodiak, another major Alaska fishing port. Fishing, fish processing, lumber, tourism and regional health care are the big contributors to the economy of Sitka, whose history is rooted in Tlingit Indian culture and that of the invading Russians back in the 1700s.
“I need to replace the Alaska Native Brotherhood Harbor, an $8.2 million job right there,” said Eliason. “The state of Alaska has a 50-50 matching grant. We will likely borrow $4.1 million and the state will send the other $4.1 million. We hope to have a new harbor by 2014,” he said, complete with new water lines, docks and electrical supply infrastructure.

Sitka is also looking at upgrading and expanding a breakwater built two decades ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers. “Things are in motion,” he said.

Meanwhile, Eliason is busy running the largest small boat harbor in Alaska, based on number of slips and linear feet, able to accommodate some 1,322 vessels in slips from 16 feet to 150 feet.
Kodiak’s Owen oversees harbor facilities that can accommodate about 700 commercial fishing vessels, everything from 32-foot drift gillnetters used in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery to 175 foot vessels employed by draggers, crab harvesters and some catcher processors.

Kodiak has no plans for harbor expansion at this time, but Owen, like Eliason, has a busy schedule dealing with port activities ranging from dock space to the boat yard to emergency preparedness, an exercise of increased importance in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. Walk the docks at Sitka and one will see several of the huge black buoy balls from Japan that have drifted from Japan to Southeast Alaska since the tsunami.

At Cordova, Alaska, where some 85 percent of the harbor commerce is commercial fisheries related, the large gillnet vessel fleet fills some 500 boat slips. A port spokeswoman said they’re hoping to add a new breakwater this summer to fend off damage from winter winds. At Cordova, one of many Alaska communities where memories are still clear on the damage from the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, emergency sirens still are tested every Wednesday at noon.

The Port of Astoria, Oregon is also in the process of updating its emergency plan for earthquakes and tsunamis, said Rita Fahrney, terminal services manager, and at the Port of Ilwaco, Wash., there is a tsunami warning system with sirens tested every two weeks and heard all over the peninsula, staff said.

Jim Pivarnik, deputy director at the Port of Port Townsend, Wash., noted that preparation in the event of tsunami and environmental issues is ongoing. This year’s fleet of commercial fishing vessels using port slips is about 13 boats, the largest it has been in six years, he said. New Day Fisheries, which sells live fish and also sells ice to the fleet, operates a lift leased from the port for its own deliveries and other commercial users.

At Dutch Harbor, the nation’s largest fisheries port by volume of seafood deliveries, the newest facility is the Carl E. Moses Small Boat Harbor, opened just months ago, said Jamie Sunderland, acting port director and also the police chief for the city of Unalaska.

Dutch Harbor is most busy during icy cold winter months, with king crab, Pollock A season, and snow crab fishery. Pollock caught at sea is processed and frozen into Pollock blocks and you see endless streams of boxes (of Pollock) for 24 hours straight coming across the city dock at the Unalaska Marine Center, he said. There are about five city dock facilities, all of which serve some portion of the fishing industry, including the crab vessels, he said.

The economy overall at Dutch Harbor is robust, he said. “A lot of it has to do with fish taxes and fuel taxes. The port is maintained and operated by the city’s ports and harbors department and as with any operation like that there are expenses and revenues. We try to balance that out so it is a self-sustaining operation. The revenues come primarily through moorage, wharfage and other dock associated fees.”
This summer a new project will replace a lot of fendering at the city dock and at the Carl Moses harbor there will be a US Army Corps of Engineers project to put in a floating breakwater to protect the new harbor, he said.

“We’re excited about the new harbor because of the expanded capability for the fleet,” Sunderland said. “The majority of the slips are 60 feet to 180 feet. There are a number of crab boats, longline boats and jig boats tied up there. We are still working at filling all of the slips.”

Sitka, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and many other ports in Alaska, Washington State and Oregon either have or are in the process of upgrading their emergency alert systems in the event of future earthquakes and tsunamis, while trying to plan for how to deal with a massive amount of debris from the Japanese tsunami now drifting eastward across the ocean.

At Dutch Harbor emergency sirens are tested on the 15th of every month, and there is a much briefer test of the sirens every Saturday afternoon. “The community is certainly concerned about these issues,” Sunderland said. “We believe that the Carl Moses harbor has been engineered to take anything you would throw at it. A lot of careful planning went into it.”

Sitka recently completed formulating a severe weather emergency plan, a cooperative effort of the city and harbor staff working together, Eliason said.

At Kodiak, every Wednesday at 2 p.m. the emergency siren is tested. Everyone in town knows about it, said Owen. It runs for about a minute, very loud. “If the siren goes off any other time, you’ better head for high ground,” said Owen.

The noise “will wake the dead, might even wake up a drunken sailor, but it doesn’t bother the sea lions at all,” he said. The only time the sea lions duck and cover, often under the docks or launch ramps, is when killer whales come into the harbor. Otherwise there are nearly three dozen sea lions that have taken up permanent residence on a piece of old floating breakwater.

Far to the south, on the coastline of Washington State and Oregon, emergency preparedness is also a top priority for ports like Astoria and Newport, Oregon, and Port Townsend, Wash.

Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle also has emergency management plans in place, and goes through a complete emergency exercise annually, but lies in a much better protected location, inside Elliot Bay, noted Kenny Lyles, general manager of the Fishermen’s Terminal.

“What’s key to this geographic location is the locks,” Lyles said. “We are half a mile away from the locks. If the locks were damaged or gave way, it would be like emptying out the bathtub. We are about 12 feet higher than Puget Sound. That is of concern.”

At the sprawling Port of Seattle, there are a number of facilities that provide moorage, from the Fishermen’s Terminal to the Marine Industrial Center and Terminal 91, the homeport of a number of large catcher longliner and processor vessels.

“We are a full service facility,” Lyles said. That includes barge service, cranes and hoists, groceries and other stores, restaurants, hydraulics, electric, refrigeration, radar and navigation services.

To compete with other ports in this multi-million dollar industry, the Port of Seattle in recent years completed millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, including redeveloping docks to floating concrete, plus renovated seawalls and major electrical, sewer and water line upgrades. “Basically we rebuilt the harbor,” he said.

Next up will be an approximate $6 million project to renovate nine net locker buildings to fire department code by removing platforms that elevated their height with elaborate shelving systems. Because the port is owned by the city of Seattle, it has taxing authority and can issue municipal bonds to fund the majority of its capital improvements.

At Newport, Oregon, only about 23 percent of the activity is related to commercial fisheries, although the commercial fleet does use a lot of port infrastructure for loading and unloading its catch, a port spokeswoman said. Newport is home to a number of businesses that provide support services to the fishing fleet, and the Newport international terminal has one of only three deep draft ports on the Oregon coast.

The port is busy year round.

Renovation of Newport’s international terminal, a 17-acre facility with 1,000 feet of deepwater waterfront, docks and storage facilities, plus additional adjacent acres of industrial land, is to be completed by year’s end. Also ongoing is rehabilitation of the port’s moorage dock, over a period of several years.

The International Port of Coos Bay, on Oregon’s southern coast recently completed renovation of the Charleston ice dock, which supplies high quality ice to the fleet of some 165 commercial fishing vessels based there, said Elise Hamner, communications and community affairs manager. Federal economic stimulus funds provided half the money for that $700,000 project, Hamner said. The port also owns and maintains the Charleston marina and shipyard, with myriad vessel support service businesses, fish plants and fish buying stations.

All the ports also provide boat yards with lift facilities where vessel owners or their appointed contractors can do maintenance and repair on port facilities. Often they are able to contract with skilled professionals in the marine trades operating near the ports.

At smaller ports and harbors, much of the infrastructure is privately owned by processors maintaining all of their own facilities.

With the exception of one port facility, where officials said the addition of more heavy equipment mechanics are needed, all spoke of an adequate labor supply to handle traffic and facilities upkeep.
What lies ahead for all of them is the challenge of replacing and upgrading older docks and other infrastructure, including electrical, water, sewer and other services with facilities that can endure for many years to come in changing climate conditions, while competing against other ports and harbors offering competing services. They are also bracing for how to deal with massive amounts of debris from the Fukushima tsunami, expected to arrive next year.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at

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