In the mid-1920s, the government, that is the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, laid down the Alaska limit rule on boats in Alaska’s purse-seine fishery. Henceforth and forever boats built for that fishery were to be no longer than 58 feet.
Over the years designers and builders learned to deal with that length restriction, turning out extremely handsome boats, and though they could not get longer they did get wider. The 58-footers were also extremely seaworthy, enough so that several are being used in the Bering Sea’s cod-pot fishery.
It turns out that ruling might not be exactly “forever,” as the government has stepped in with a new ruling that impacts fishing boat design: part of the 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act — supposedly done in the name of safety — says boats 50 feet and over that operate beyond three miles have to be classed. (I say the government “stepped in” as naval architects and boatbuilders — people who understand boats and safety — were not consulted. The rumor is that a certain Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who recently retired was a driving force behind the Act’s “class” and other requirements.)
Classing a boat will cost prospective boat owners a lot of money. One boatbuilder estimates it will drive up the cost of a new boat by as much as 30 percent. “It could put me out of business,” says Howard Moe at Little Hoquiam Shipyard in Hoquiam, Wash.
As a result, boatbuilders are coming up with designs they are calling 49 footers — actually 49 feet, 11 inches — to slide in under the 50-foot class rule. Little Hoquiam Shipyard and Fred Wahl Marine Construction in Reedsport, Ore., are two boatyards with such designs. Pat Pitsch at Strongback Metal Boats in Bellingham, Wash., has built a 46-foot seiner.
If 49 feet becomes the new 58 footer, all in the name of safety, then ironically the ultimate question becomes “by forcing fishermen to go with a boat nine feet shorter have the politicians put fishermen in harm’s way?”
As Fred Wahl says, “Sending someone to the Bering Sea in a 49-foot boat instead of a 58-foot boat is not the right direction for safety!”
Or because of cost, how many fishermen, instead of building a new boat, will stick with their old boat that’s sorely in need of major renovations? Probably too many.