Why the Alaskan fishing fleet is based in Seattle

AP Photo

By Paula Wissel

On the reality TV show “The Deadliest Catch,” you see the crew of the Northwestern enduring storms and other dangers while crab fishing in the Bering Sea in the middle of winter.

You might be surprised to learn that the Northwestern and the hundreds of other boats that make up the North Pacific Fishing Fleet are not based in Alaska. Rather, they travel thousands of miles south each year to tie up in Seattle.

So, why is the fleet based here? There certainly are more convenient ports closer to the fishing grounds. The reasons have to do with water, weather and people. Oh, and tradition plays a part.

The basics

A familiar scene on the docks: mending nets, 1930. Courtesy Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch.Fishermen’s Terminal, at the base of the Magnolia neighborhood next to the Ballard Bridge, is the homeport for the fleet and has been for nearly 100 years.

Although not as well known, Fishermen’s Terminal is as much of a Seattle icon to many as the Pike Place Market and Space Needle. And, having the fleet here means $5 billion going into the local economy each year.


Takes more than a hammer

Fishing vessels have highly specialized needs.

Pete Knutson in front of his boat Njord. Photo by Paula Wissel One local fishing family has built three boats they use in Alaskan waters. They said the boats couldn’t have built “without Ballard Hardware.”  

Ballard Hardware & Supply Company – which advertizes selling everything from “abrasives to zipgrip” – is one of hundreds of businesses that service the fishing fleet at Fishermen’s Terminal.

And parts aren’t enough – you also have to have the people who know how to work on the boats.

“You have a critical mass of highly skilled workers in Magnolia and Ballard, shipwrights and people skilled in electronics and hydraulics,” said gillnetter Pete Knutson.” This is the densest concentration on the American West Coast.”

In fact, even fishermen who live in Alaska will often bring their boat to Seattle to get it ready for a fishing season.


Weather is nice; water is fine

Photo by Paula WisselFresh water is another reason the North Pacific Fishing Fleet has its homeport in Seattle. Fishermen’s Terminal is on the Lake Washington side of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, so fishermen can get their boats out of saltwater, which is more corrosive.  

Seattle doesn’t have a reputation for having great weather, but “good weather” is among the main reasons fishermen give for docking their boats here in the off season. They say, compared to Alaska, the weather here is mild, perfect for working on boats year round.

Kenneth Lyles, General Manager of Fishermen’s Terminal for the Port of Seattle, said when you add everything up, it’s worth it to travel the distance to tie up “in the lower 48.”

“What we offer, very few harbors in Alaska or the state of Washington offer,” Lyles said.


It’s tradition, too

Fishermen’s Terminal was dedicated on Jan. 10, 1914. The facilities were funded by a bond issue.  

According to historylink.org: “At the time, the several hundred purse seiners and other small vessels that fished the waters from Puget Sound to Alaska had no homeport.”

Walk around Fishermen’s Terminal today and you definitely see a working dock.

In early May, as fishermen get ready to head out for the salmon fishing season in Alaska, workers are cleaning, welding, sanding and painting the roughly 500 boats in the fleet. Owners are talking to their mechanics, making sure their boats are seaworthy. On an expanse of asphalt, men are mending their nets by hand.

Tim Jovanovich, who repairs nets at Fishermen's Terminal. Photo by Peter McGrawOne of them is Tim Jovanovich. He had to sell his boat in 1997 when salmon prices went through the floor. Now he has a net-mending business.

Jovanovich says this is a community where people look out for one another.

“Guys will walk down the dock and they’ll look at each other’s boats, and see that guy maybe his boat is a little low in the water, maybe he’s got a leak. I better give him a call and find out what’s goin’ on,” he said.

On Dock 8, Pete Knutson is getting his 40-foot boat “Njord” ready for the season in Alaska. Knutson, who comes from a long line of fishermen, is a gillnetter. When he isn’t fishing, he’s teaching anthropology at Seattle Central Community College.     

From an anthropologist’s perspective, he said Fishermen’s Terminal is a face-to-face community. You’ll often see people standing around for hours telling stories.

“Deals are made here on a handshake and your reputation precedes you,” he said.


Could homeport be another home?

It’s not like other ports haven’t tried to lure away the North Pacific Fishing Fleet.  

In a Seattle Times story last year, an Alaskan group’s proposal to move its fleet from Seattle to Seward, Alaska, spurred the Port of Seattle into action. It publicly pledged to do everything it can to make sure this $5 billion dollar industry stays in Seattle.

Kenneth Lyles points out the $60 million in improvements made to Fishermen’s Terminal in the last several years. Among other repairs, the port put in concrete docks and ladders.

Some fishermen grumble that they had to lobby hard for the improvements and had to fight off a plan that would have given open access to pleasure boats at the docks. That controversy was covered in a 2005 documentary film by B.J. Bullert called “Fishermen’s Terminal.”


Maintaining the city’s industrial soul

Pete Knutson, who speaks passionately for keeping the fleet in Seattle, says it’s important not just because it’s an economic engine in the city. The fleet’s Seattle home also maintains an industrial blue collar base in the heart of the city.

That’s a big part of what makes Seattle distinct and unique, he adds.

 “When you look at the Seattle waterfront, you can still see people working on the waterfront. In most big cities in the world, the working people have been exiled to the outskirts,” he said.