By Rick Smeriglio for SCN —
The Seward fishing community showed up in force at a mid-day work session of City Council and the Port and Commerce Advisory Board. Council and PACAB had a question: How do we attract fishing boats to Seward? The fishermen and women had an answer: build more infrastructure and develop marine service businesses. Seward fishermen have pressed for a public crane in the small boat harbor and may get one in a year or two, but they made it clear that a crane alone will not persuade fishing families to settle in Seward with their boats.
Led by Bob Linville, longtime Seward commercial fisherman and member of PACAB, several other fishers who spoke made a key point. Individual fishing families do not always berth their vessels, land their catch, work on their vessels and reside all in the same town. Maximum economic benefit goes to the town that puts all the pieces together in one place.
“We live here. We contemplated moving to Cordova. We have more support in Cordova than we do here,” said Brooke Andrews whose family owns F/V’s Resolute, Lively Jane and Trask.
Local fisherman Tyrell Seavey of F/V Walk the Line told City Council, “I fish out of Whittier, but I work on my boat out of Cordova.”
Data collected from state and federal agencies by United Fisherman of Alaska tell a story of fishing towns in south-central Alaska. In 2013, the City of Seward reaped about half a million dollars in fisheries taxes and had 91 vessels officially home ported. Homer only got about $37,000 in fisheries taxes, but had 581 vessels home ported. Bob Linville interprets this to mean that fisherman who live in Homer with their boats, sell their fish in Seward and pay their fish tax, but take their profits and their payrolls back home to spend in their local economy. According to the UFA fact sheets, income to Seward fisherman in 2013 came to about $11 million while income to Homer fisherman reached $80 million. The fish came to Seward, but the big dollars left.
Linville suggests a few reasons why fishing families have left Seward to live elsewhere, often taking the boats with them. He cites lack of infrastructure such as public cranes and a tidal grid, high personal property tax levied by the city on vessels and a lack of businesses to service vessels. The fishermen in the room backed him up, especially about infrastructure and services.
While speaking in favor of a public-use (city-owned) crane, Andy Wilder of F/V Claire Oceana said, “We are independent fisherman! You can’t be very independent if you borrow Icicle’s crane and then sell a load of fish to someone else.”
“Most of us here are here for a crane,” said Ezra Campbell, owner of F/V’s Mary J, Dancer and Northern Pride.
Campbell said that he made 40 to 60 lifts a year mostly of fishing gear, free of charge for friends, with a crane aboard the Mary J.
PACAB passed a resolution last year supporting allocating funds for design and installation of an 8-ton capacity public-crane on I-dock in the small boat harbor. City Council adopted the resolution, but reduced it to designing a 5-ton crane. Many crane users at the meeting questioned the adequacy of a smaller crane saying that the crane at maximum lateral extension should have the capacity to safely lift a seine skiff.
Harbormaster Mack Funk reported that City of Seward had put out a solicitation for engineering design of a crane and said that he expected a response in about three months. Assistant city manager Ron Long cautioned the group that limited strength of the underlying dock could limit crane capacity. If installed on solid ground at a bulkhead with no weight limits, shallow water would limit the size of vessel that could use the crane Long said. To address the issue of high taxes on vessels moored in Seward, city administration will consider a flat tax to replace the current tax based on presumed value estimated from sale price.
Fishermen and women at the meeting seemed to agree that availability of marine services such as a propeller shop, hydraulics shop and a good chandlery also influenced an owner’s decision to berth a vessel in a town and to live there as well. Seward has several marine service businesses. Nonetheless, of the 91 fishing vessels listed as home ported in Seward, only 60 have owners who live in Seward according to UFA-collected data from 2013. The 2015 Small Boat Harbor Plan states that only 19 commercial fishing vessels have berths in the harbor. Some vessels tie up as transients without a permanent berth. The plan states that 124 charter vessels that pay a passenger tax, also moor in the harbor. City of Seward collects more in passenger taxes than it does in raw fish taxes according to the SBH plan. Fishermen who spoke at the meeting suggested that services attracted boats, but acknowledged that prospective businesses needed to have a solid market in place before deciding to locate in Seward.
Seavey said, “Having more infrastructure attracts the type of businesses that benefit us. Every single boat has a trickle-down effect.”
Andrews said, “We need to support the fishermen that we have with the amenities that they need to keep them here.”
Koal Backlund of F/V Bazerk spoke about the need to keep at the task of attracting fishing families and their boats. He supported the idea of a crane, but did not think that it would solve the whole puzzle. He regarded the solution as a long-term proposition.
“Building infrastructure in Seward is an ongoing process,” said Backlund.
Seward Small Boat Harbor has 660 actual slips and an additional 110 slip-equivalents of linear, transient moorage, all fully utilized. It has a waiting list of vessel owners who desire slips. City of Seward does not preferentially allocate slips to commercial fishing boats. City of Seward has plans to create a breakwater and potential harbor at the Seward Marine Industrial Center. Resurrection Bay has three large buyer/processors of seafood who have docks; one at SMIC, one in the small boat harbor and one just south of downtown Seward.