JUNEAU - The Seattle company that owned the doomed fishing vessel Alaska Ranger has a record as an aggressive and sometimes recalcitrant player in an industry notorious as a widow-maker.Aside from the 203-foot Ranger, Fishing Company of Alaska Inc. owns at least four other large fishing vessels, all of which were built in the 1970s.
They are among about two dozen boats that make up the North Pacific head-and-gut factory trawler fleet - vessels that tow gaping nets on or near the bottom for sole, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel. Dozens of onboard workers remove the heads and guts and freeze the fish, mainly for Asian consumption.
A reclusive Seattle-area woman, Karena Adler, heads the company.
The firm is valuable not for the boats it owns but for the catching rights it has established over the years - rights that potentially could be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, industry participants say.
While much of Alaska's fishing industry is moving toward a new cooperative style of fishing where vessel owners divvy up the catch before the season starts, Fishing Company of Alaska has been a holdout for the old style of fighting for fish on the high seas.
This sometimes has created friction and animosity among competitors, said Brent Paine, a Seattle fleet representative.
"They don't engage with the rest of the industry on issues of like concern," he said.
Fishing Company of Alaska has a history of conflict with federal fishery regulators.
In late 2006, agents and lawyers for the National Marine Fisheries Service hit the company and three of its fishing captains with a $254,500 civil fine for fishing violations aboard the trawler Alaska Juris. The charges alleged interference with observers - federal biologists who ride aboard large fishing vessels to keep track of what's caught, kept and thrown overboard.
The Juneau lawyer handling the Juris matter was out of the office Monday and the status of the case couldn't be determined.
Two years ago, Fishing Company of Alaska sued the government in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeking to defeat new fishing regulations the company said would force it to make multimillion-dollar alterations to the processing decks of its boats.
The company won an appellate decision in December, forcing the government to back off its catch monitoring and enforcement regulations.
Disasters have now struck at least three times this decade in the head-and-gut trawl fleet and the factory longline fleet - boats that also head, gut and freeze fish but use miles-long strings of hooks instead of nets to catch them.
In 2001 the trawler Arctic Rose capsized and sank in the Bering Sea, killing all 15 men aboard. The next year an explosion and fire aboard the longliner Galaxy killed three.
Those two tragedies prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to require the two fleets to meet higher vessel inspection and safety requirements. But because of the advanced age of the most of the boats, the Coast Guard exempted them from the normal regulations and enrolled them in a new "alternative compliance and safety" agreement.
All the Fishing Company of Alaska boats, including the Alaska Ranger, are in that program, the Coast Guard said.
Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call him in Juneau at 1-907-586-1531.
By WESLEY LOY