Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty’s letter to Congress may well have been the death knell for the trawler America’s Finest. The Kirkland, Wash.-based Fishermen’s Finest’s request for a Jones Act waiver for the new boat has failed make it as a rider on the Homeland Security reauthorization bill.
“I know it was considered,” said Fishermen’s Finest President Dennis Moran. “I can’t say whether it was ever in or out.”
Late last year, the Coast Guard declined the request for a waiver.
“I honestly don’t know whether that’s the last stop,” Moran said. “It will involve listing the boat for international sale, which we’re going to go ahead and do.”
When Anacortes, Wash.-based builder Dakota Creek Industries was discovered to have built the new trawler with approximately 10 percent foreign steel — as opposed to the Jones Act-allowed 1.5 percent — the shipyard and Fishermen’s Finest suddenly found themselves in the position of asking forgiveness in a politically charged fishery.
Jones Act waivers are not unheard of in the fishing industry. But this waiver request happened to come during a rough patch in the Alaska groundfish industry, when most stakeholders are scrambling to make sure their people are being paid and their vision is effective for the long haul.
“There are very powerful business interests — I should say they’re powerful companies — that believe their business interests are advanced by preventing new building,” Moran said. “That creates new opportunities for them to expand.”
As Fishermen's Finest prepared to consolidate two federal trawl permits for Alaska groundfish onto the new America’s Finest, the question became: What will come of the two boats the company is retiring? A logical option was to turn those boats into motherships, which can sit offshore and process deliveries from any vessels fishing in the region, in effect, reducing deliveries to shoreside processors.
A reduction in deliveries would affect the town of Unalaska-Dutch Harbor, which processes deliveries of the bulk of Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands harvests.
"I feel for Anacortes," Unalaska Mayor Kelty told KUCB news in late February. "But… Anacortes and the shipyard are not our constituents. You’ve got to do what’s best for the city of Unalaska."
Whether Kelty’s opposition was politically motivated is unclear. Some believe the exposure of Fishermen’s Finest’s challenge to Alaska’s tax law — which is supposed to be part of a confidential process — contributed to the mayor’s decision to press for limits on the company.
“Two years ago the state of Alaska raised the landing taxes,” Moran said. “The raise was focused heavily on our company and similarly situated companies. We have a right to challenge the tax within the confidential tax procedure, which we and several other companies did.”
Fishermen’s Finest has been advised that the tax law violates the U.S. Constitution on the grounds that it taxes exports.
“Our suggestion that there’s a law out there that’s illegal has upset people who benefit immensely from the illegal law,” Moran said. “That’s not good government. Government is supposed to follow the law, not break it.”
Whatever comes of the tax challenge, it appears the America’s Finest may live up to her name, just not in American fisheries.
“They [Dakota Creek] were willing to do whatever,” Moran said. “They self-reported. They did the right thing. They owned up to it. They offered to make a huge new investment, to bring all sorts of new technology into the country that they would make available to all the boatyards. It would have benefited everyone. All of that was rejected, and it went in the opposite direction, all to satisfy the appetites of a handful of politically well connected individuals.”
Now that Fishermen’s Finest has exhausted all options to launch the boat for American fisheries, Moran says they will be looking to liquidate the boat to a foreign buyer.
But who has the cash to buy a brand new 264-foot trawler? The rumors and hand-wringing over selling top fishing technology at a song to Russia have dominated the backside of the waiver chatter. Moran preferred not to disclose the nationalities of his prospective buyers, but he did confirm he had some interest outside of Russia.
“This is a big disappointment of course,” Moran said. “The fleet’s gotta get replaced some day. This certainly sets back fleet replacement — I don’t know, 10 years — for everybody. Maybe more.”
Dakota Creek has reportedly laid off nearly half of its yard staff. The yard’s future is uncertain.
“There’s a lot of fishermen who could be working on a boat that’s safe, strong and productive,” Moran said. “It’s a difficult thing to swallow, but apparently that’s the way it’s going to go down.