You try telling these old Seattle seadogs their boats need a makeover | KUOW News and Information

You try telling these old Seattle seadogs their boats need a makeover

Nov 17, 2016

The fishing fleet in Washington state is getting older, and it’s due for a big upgrade. A new study says that work could bring in billions of dollars for the state. That could help save the region’s struggling shipyards.

But first you’ll have to convince the old fishermen to spend money on their boats.


It’s hard to be a shipyard in Seattle. There’s a lot of competition for the land they’re sitting on.

“There was a bunch of other smaller yards around here, and they’ve gone away,” said Scott Woodard. He works at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard in Ballard.

He fell in love with working on old boats. He mastered an ancient technique where you push strings of tarred hemp into the seams between planks on a wooden boat.

“This is caulking,” he explained. “But people will say corking. My mentor was kind of a traditionalist. And he called himself a caulker. So in honor of him, that’s what I say. I’m a caulker, not a corker.”

But it’s not caulking or corking that pays the bills at this shipyard. Most fishing boats are metal. The real money is in fixing up those boats, doing things like painting and sandblasting.

“The guy who’s the blaster here is consistently the busiest person in the yard,” he said.

On the left, a hundred year old boat called The Seymour still uses labor intensive hand baiting methods to catch black cod and halibut. On the right, the Blue North uses all the latest technology. To replace all the large vessels over 30 years old would cost $9 billion. But even incremental upgrades will likely bring Washington $1.5 billion in the next decade.
Credit Richard A. Williams, Courtesy of Blue North

There are many ways to upgrade a fishing boat. Blasting and repainting is one way. You can also bring in fancy new equipment.

But not everyone’s ready for that.

Brian Harber works on a 100-year-old wooden boat called the Seymour. He fishes halibut and black cod. He does it the old fashioned way:

“Well, first you chop up a bunch of herring, or squid, into basically matchbook sized pieces,” he said. And then you put those pieces of bait on hooks. His crew sometimes puts out 14,000 hooks each day.

“If they had a TV show about our fishery, it would be called the most repetitive catch,” said Harber, “because that’s how you do well in fishing, you haul lots of hooks.”

Brian Harber is with the Deep Sea Fishermen's Union of the Pacific. He holds up a stuffed black cod.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy that work.

“It’s a strange thing about this business. It gets in your blood,” Harber said. “I can’t explain why. Some of the best fishermen that I’ve ever known were miserable failures on land at anything else.”

You get into a zone with baiting. But because it’s so repetitive, you could have an auto-baiting robot do it. That’s one example of the kind of upgrade that would help shipyards. But Harber says his boss isn’t interested in auto-baiters.

“The owner – the guy that I work for probably could make more money,” said Harber. “But he’s had a full crew as long as he’s had a boat. He’s not greedy.”

But the industry and the State of Washington have much to gain from the sale of new equipment and the upgrading of boats.

There’s so much they could do. You can replace your boat, or you can reshape the hull, to increase fuel efficiency. You can run pipes to carry cool water over your freshly caught fish. You can lengthen boats, widen them, and add processing equipment so you can chop them into fish sticks on the deck.

At left, tools at the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard. At right, a shiny new engine at the Pacific Marine Expo.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

At the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, Francisco Flores sold auto-baiters. That’s the robot that could someday put Brian Harber out of work.

Harber was skeptical. He asked, “How much more efficient do you figure auto-baiting is than hand baiting?”

“Well, you tell me,” said Flores, “when our machine is sending, you know, two or three hooks per second, with a piece of bait on it…”

“I’m good, but I’m not that good,” Harber. “Is that what you figure? Two or three hooks a second?”

“Yes. It can go that fast.”

“Wow.”

Harber considered what he’d heard.

“His pitch is good. He’s smooth,” said Harber confessed, looking thoughtfully into the distance. “I’d buy the auto baiter.”

Of course it’s up to his boss.