For more than a quarter century, three Washington-based crab boats named Bering Sea, Arctic Sea and North Sea worked harvest grounds off Alaska, then sent profits south to their Puget Sound owners.
The vessels, among the top-grossing crabbers in the North Pacific fleet, are still berthed in Seattle. But they are now owned by Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of six Alaska economic-development nonprofits that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Northwest fleets that catch crab, pollock and other fish.
These nonprofits represent 65 Alaska Native communities that have long struggled with high unemployment and poverty. They were launched by a federal fishery council, which vested them with valuable shares in the regulated seafood harvest to help generate seafood jobs and dollars for those communities. And their success is a source of pride in a state that for decades chafed at the domination of its fishing industry by outside fleets.
But a proposal by one nonprofit to base some boats in Alaska as early as 2014 has sparked concern in Seattle, where fishing fleets directly sustain more than 5,000 jobs and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
"The fishing industry in Washington and Oregon has arrived at a fateful crossroads," declared a letter sent last month to the state's congressional delegation by four Washingtonians who have been involved in the industry or the fishery council. The letter complains of a "massive transfer of wealth" resulting from undue Alaska influence on federal fishery policy.
"When you look at the advantages they have, they (the Alaska nonprofits) obviously are going to end up being king of the hill," said Kris Poulsen, a retired Washington crabber who signed the letter. "We need a more equal playing field."
Poulsen and the others proposed that Congress boost Northwest representation on the regional council that helps set harvest rules.
The letter has riled the Alaskans who lead the nonprofit groups. They say the Northwest fleets received most of the North Pacific harvest shares, and the federal policy that launched their groups helped prevent aboriginal communities from getting shut out of a fishing industry that has taken billions of dollars of seafood from the ocean off Alaska's shores.
"I think this is revisionist history," said Larry Cotter, chief executive officer of the Aleutian Pribolof Island Community Development Association. "The letter seeks to recolonize Alaska, and I just think that -- finally -- we are beyond that."
LURE OF SEWARD
If some of the Alaska vessels do leave Seattle, their most likely home port would be Seward, which sits at the end of an ice-free fjord on the Kenai Peninsula.
"We spend approximately $20 million annually in Seattle for moorage, vendor support, and maintenance; and we spend approximately $2 million per year to fly crews to and from Alaska and Seattle," wrote John Mark, president of Coastal Villages in a February letter to Seward Mayor William Dunham. He called basing the ships in Alaska a "historic opportunity."
Seward secured more than $400,000 in state funds to study port expansion to accommodate the Seattle fleets, and hopes to get more than $30 million in additional state or other funds to finance the work. According to the current schedule, Coastal Villages fleet could begin to move into new Seward berths by 2014.
Morgen Crow, executive director of Coastal Villages, cautions that there is no final decision to move his group's fleet. Though Seward has a dry-dock facility, it lacks many of the support services, including many specialty crafts, that make Seattle the fleet's hub, where vessels can get repaired, refurbished and resupplied.
Unlike Coastal Villages, other Alaska nonprofits haven't acquired a majority stake in most of their Washington vessels, so their partners likely would have to approve moving home ports to Alaska.
CHANGE IN FLEETS
The birth of the Alaska nonprofits dates back to the early 1990s, when the foreign fleets that once dominated the harvests had been replaced by U.S. fleets largely based in Washington and Oregon.
To end a bitter fight over pollock, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which shapes harvest policies off Alaska, divided up the catch among rival fleets. Six of the 11 voting members are from Alaska, and the council in 1991 allocated 7.5 percent of the annual harvest to Bering Sea communities.
In the years that followed, federal actions increased the western Alaska pollock share to 10 percent, and also awarded shares of crab, cod, halibut, flatfish and other seafood harvests.
Early on, the six nonprofits that control these harvest shares teamed up with Seattle-based companies that had the vessels to catch this seafood.
The oldest surviving partnership, forged in 1992, pairs Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., which represents 15 villages in northwest Alaska, with Seattle-based Glacier Fish.
Today Norton Sound, though still a minority owner, is the largest single investor in Glacier's three factory trawlers.
John Bundy, Glacier Fish president, said the relationship has given his company access to seafood resources. For Norton Sound, it has generated earnings, some of which have been reinvested in Glacier, and some spent to improve salmon runs, pay fuel bills and fund other efforts to benefit the native villages.
"Our partnership has withstood the test of time, and is based on mutual respect," Bundy said. "I think that at one time or another, I have visited every one of those villages and ... every year we provide work for anyone who wants it, and is qualified to work on our boats."
The nonprofits have lots of allies in Washington state, and many in the industry wanted nothing to do with the letter to the state's congressional delegation.
"This is a very sensitive issue and there are plenty of people who have benefited from these groups," said Bob Alverson, executive director of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association. He helped draft the letter, and is asking the association's 80-plus owners of halibut longline vessels for approval to sign it.
There also have been some strains in the relationship between Alaska and Washington partners.
Last year, Coastal Villages opted out of its investment in Seattle-based American Seafoods. Instead, Coastal took control of one of the Seattle-based company's factory trawlers, and three longline vessels and additional harvest shares.
Poulsen sold the Bering Sea, Arctic Sea and North Sea vessels and their harvest rights to Coastal Villages for more than $30 million in 2006.
"I said why not buy half -- but they said it was either all, or nothing," Poulsen said.
Poulsen was frustrated when, three years later, the group terminated a management contract with his family. And he decided to sign the Washington letter that seeks to bolster the state's representation on the council.
"I wasn't aware of any hard feelings or heartburn," said Crow, Coastal's executive director, who said he was surprised to see Poulsen's signature on the letter. "We have a lot of good relationships with people all over the crab industry, and we are here to stay."
Alaska's dominance on the federal fishery council reflects a deal struck by Washington Democrat Sen. Warren Magnuson and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens as they crafted landmark 1976 legislation that claimed all fishery resources within 200-mile limits of U.S. shores as a federal resource.
Though deemed a federal resource, the seafood lay off Alaska's coasts; that state got the majority of council members and is the site of most of the council meetings.
The letter to the Washington congressional delegation, in making the case for more Northwest representation, alleges that the council has sometimes discriminated against Washington and Northwest residents, which is contrary to federal fishery regulations.
In addition to Poulsen, the letter was signed by Lee Alverson, a Seattle fishing-industry consultant; Vince O'Halloran, a Seattle representative of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific; and David Fluharty, a University of Washington professor and former member of the federal fishery council.
Their letter called for creating additional council seats for Washington and Oregon to equal Alaska's representation.
The city council of Newport, an Oregon fishing port, last month passed a resolution that called for increasing Oregon's voting membership on the council.
So far, the Northwest delegation has opted not to pick a fight with Alaska to try to change the council. But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who serves on a Senate subcommittee that handles fishery issues, expects the issue to be debated as the Magnuson-Stevens act comes up for reauthorization in 2013.
A spokesman said she's committed to ensuring "Washington state fishermen are not undercut or undermined" when that happens.
If the Northwest delegation does try to change the council, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat who chairs the fishery subcommittee, vows that such a bill "will never see the light of day," according to Julie Hasquet, Begich's spokeswoman.
The Alaska nonprofits are permanently vested with their harvest shares. So in the years ahead, they will likely increase their investments in the North Pacific fishing fleets, and make more of the decisions on where those ships should be based.
"We own and control these assets, and if we decide to move them that's our decision," said Crow, Coastal Villages executive director.