Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Rationalization" in the ports

National Fisherman magazine editorials don't usually pique my interest. They usually are dealing with a obsucure clam species on the East Coast or shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Not much is said of issues that affect the underlying malise of the Alaskan fisherman's life. But this piece by Jerry Frazier sounded a note that harmonized with one that has been echoing around in my head for a long time. (Turns out the Editors Log piece I wanted, I couldn't link to, so I threw in another one as a consolation prize. It's good too, has to do with missing marketing opportunities galore by just focusing on "wild.")

Jerry said, "Individual landowners aren't the only ones feeling the squeeze. Net lofts, boatyards, fish houses and other gritty enterprises cannot compete with condominiums or harbor walks littered with trendy restaurants and boutiques in the eyes of developers. Thus, the infrastructure on which an entire fleet depends is at risk."

When I was at the State, doing a Capital Project in Fisheries Infrastructure Development, I made some inquiries into the placement of a University training facility in prime waterfront space. There was a dock there with a hoist that was available to fishermen and processors. And an ice machine and ice storage van sandwiched in. I had just previously run the only working cold storage in Juneau and we used these premises as one of our three offloading sites. But the bulk of the area was dominated by a marine trades educational facility. You could haul out your boat there, but I only saw derelicts up on blocks, for some reason.

The area would have made a perfect place for a processing plant or expanded vessel maintenance facility. But, alas, the University wasn't about to move their classes out to their main campus. They were there and that justified being there. I wasn't around when Juneau approved that move and there wasn't a position like mine around at the time either, to be a watchdog for the seafood industry.

The fish processors that were getting a foot-hold in Juneau at the time were relegated to industrial strip malls out the road, or in our case, a former airplane hangar where they used to haul up seaplanes for maintenance. (One of the small processors, with a real shrewd owner/operator, finally broke into a traditional downtown location near where the old Juneau Cold Storage had been.) I think some of this had to do with the fact that some Douglasites wanted all the fishery industrial activity over on their side of the channel. So what, if the Taku winds blast the processing workers in the winter like a NASA wind tunnel.

When the Douglas Cold Storage burned down, then the way was open for Taku Smokeries to move downtown. Anyway that's my perception. I dabbled at opening the Douglas Cold Storage too, after leaving the State, but found one of the phase legs in the city transformer faulty. The city wouldn't do anything about it which made the whole plant an electrocution hazard. That was the final straw that soured me on the operations end of things. It's an uphill battle guys.

As Jerry Fraser laments, where does the degradation of the model of a successful fishing port end. When the crowd of wellwishers trample the performer? The European model came to this country and worked great for the fishing communities. The fishing related businesses: the hardware stores, the grocery stores, the processing plants, all clustered around a good harbor. When you start to depart from that model, you start to cut the legs out from under the fishermen and everyone dependent on them.

You could extrapolate this degradation to envision a waterfront that is slowly taken over by condos, pizza places, Mexican restraunts, and anybody else that just plain likes the water view. Not the least of these interlopers is the state government in Alaska. Look at where the Fish and Game Department locates their office buildings, in prime commercial waterfront locations. If Alaska state government wanted to put it's money where it mouth is, it would give up these locations to the seafood industry and not be a part of the problem. Like in "push, pull, or get out of the way."

Then you add putting in tour ship docks in the best downtown places so the tourists can walk around and oggle the dwindling number of fishermen wandering around in their sou'westers. Not to mention all the Tiawanese made trinkets being sold where you used to get a corkline or a prop zinc.

I use that example of the rain hat because I went on a junket to Halifax, Nova Scotia one time for research on a developing fishery. I had always wanted the chance to go there and see the historic downtown with all it's warehouses and fish processing houses. I was in for a rude shock. The office buildings marched right down to the water. There was one row of historic brick buildings with restraunts in them. Thank goodness at least they weren't Thai and Mexican restraunts.

I saw one person in two days there who looked like a fisherman. And, of course he had on a sou'wester rain hat, hence the analogy. He looked like one old batchelor fisherman in Petersburg who mostly just sat in the pilot house on his boat, in his oil-skins, looking lost, after halibut fishing went to the derby system.

The seafood industry in Alaska hasn't only had to deal with competition from fish farmers in Scotland, Norway, Chile and elsewhere, but with competition from city and state government, and with developers and non-related businesses of all sorts.

I don't think "rationalization" is a term that should be bandied about normally. So far, thankfully, it has only been used to justify the large processing plant owners out to Westward, AKA, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, securing a piece of the action by law, instead of by the free enterprise system. But there needs to be rationalization in the ports. Sticking to the time tested model of a successful fishing port is not only rational but essential.


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