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Can Alaska's commercial fishing vessels adopt electric power, too?

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 31, 2015

The first seagoing electric-powered passenger vessel in the United States is set to launch next summer in Juneau.

The E/V Tongass Rain is a 50-foot catamaran that can accommodate 47 passengers, designed for eco-education and whale-watching tours. Its primary fuel source will be rain, delivered to the boat via Juneau's hydroelectric power grid and stored in a bank of lithium batteries.

Despite weighing less than half a traditional lead acid battery, the lithium batteries provide three times the power and charge three times as fast, said Bob Varness, president and manager of Tongass Rain Electric Cruise (TREC).

The hull of the craft, designed by Jutson Marine in Vancouver, has been certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to travel up to 150 nautical miles from a "safe harbor" in 6½-foot seas at 12 knots. Once the propulsion system gets the green light, Varness said, building will begin.

"No noise, no emissions … and the system only has one moving part, so you don't have exhaust systems to deal with, turbo chargers, cooling systems or injection pumps. Every 50,000 hours the battery manufacturer recommends pulling the motor out, putting new bearings and seals on either end and they send you the same one back," he said.

Varness, who also is an independent Torqeedo electric marine motor dealer, said alternative power is being used by U.S. mariners on a small scale, but not in commercial fishing. His small troller runs up to 130 miles on a single charge and recharges for $1.25. He believes electropower would also be a good fit for salmon drift and gillnetters, as well as jig and pot gear.

"If you know where you're going every day and it's pretty much a routine, and if it's not high speed, this technology is something that people really need to look at. All the products are off the shelf and available for purchase today," he said.

The products might be at hand, but the expertise to do electropower conversions for fishing boats is not.

"It's so new, no one is even sure how to do it," Varness said.

Marine designer Trevor O'Brien agreed that putting the technology aboard fishing vessels is tricky today. O'Brien manages the production engineering team at Armstrong Marine in Port Angeles, Washington, where the E/V Tongass Rain will be built.

"This first boat is a lot simpler -- it's a passenger boat and we know exactly how many miles they run out and back. Figuring out how much electricity they need is a lot easier than a fishing boat that you don't know where they're going, or how long they'll be running. O'Brien said chillers and compressors for the fish hold are a big power draw, and the lithium batteries pose challenges.

"The most complicated part is getting the batteries charged quickly, and some of the systems are liquid-cooled and that can get complex. The charging circuits aren't really user friendly, and you've got to be kind of an electrical expert to maintain and service the systems," he explained. "For that reason, a lot of the battery manufacturers have required that they do installations and maintenance on the first boats being built. But I know they are working very hard to get the system to where people can maintain it on their own."

Perhaps the biggest drawback is price. The 50-foot Tongass Rain will use 10 batteries. Each can deliver 5 kilowatts and costs $5,000.

As with any new technology, O'Brien said prices will drop fast as use expands. And O'Brien and Varness are confident that will happen.

"We need to build a vessel and learn from it and challenge it and fine-tune it until it is right. And then do mass production," said Varness.

"That's why I'm excited about this project," O'Brien said. "No one has done this yet and we are willing to be the guinea pig and make it happen. We're one of the front-runners and we want to prove it works because we think it is the future."

Also on the electro-front: Kodiak Electric Vessels LLC received a $247,000 grant in 2013 from the state's Emerging Energy Technology Fund. The small company has demonstrated two core technologies: a power-dense motor and universal modular inverter controller, for use in both stationary power generation and propulsion.

Antibiotics in farmed salmon

U.S. food retailers are getting the message that Americans want to know what they are eating. And it's clear that consumers don't want their foods tainted with hormones and antibiotics.

That's prompted Costco to turn away from farmed salmon from Chile -- the world's second-largest producer -- due to its heavy use of antibiotics to kill deadly bacteria in its net pens. According to Reuters, Chile used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics last year during production of nearly 900,000 tons of salmon, a 25 percent increase from 2013.

Costco, the No. 3 U.S. retailer, has typically bought about 90 percent of the 600,000 pounds of salmon fillets it sells each week from Chile. That's huge, amounting to nearly 9 percent of all Chilean exports to the United States. Costco now will buy 60 percent of its salmon from Norway, and 40 percent from Chile.

Norway, the world's largest farmed salmon producer, uses far fewer antibiotics. The latest figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization show Norway produced 1.3 million tons of salmon and used about 2,000 pounds of antibiotics in 2013.

Costco is following the lead of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, which have phased out Chilean fish in favor of antibiotic-free fish caught in the wild.

Target has gone further and eliminated farmed salmon from its shelves, and Wal-Mart is pressing all protein suppliers to reduce their use of antibiotics.

Luckily, American salmon lovers can know what they are buying. By law all fresh or frozen salmon and other seafood on U.S. grocery shelves must be labeled according to the country of origin and whether it is farmed or wild.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish(at)alaskan.com.

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