Doug Karlberg, a local commercial fisherman, has written this guest article.
Tomorrow there will be a showdown between local fishermen (and women) and the Port of Bellingham over commercial moorage rates charged in Bellingham and Blaine. I am one of those fishermen, and this is our side of the story.
For over 100 years now, Bellingham and Whatcom County have enjoyed a major national position in the harvesting, processing, and selling of seafood caught in local waters as well as distant waters from the Mexican border to the Artic Circle. Whether they catch the fish locally and deliver it to Bellingham, which remains one of the top 20 seafood landing ports in the nation, or they deliver their catch elsewhere and bring their wallets home, Whatcom County has benefited from the fishing industry for a century now. Culturally, many lives have been touched by the fishing industry at some point, and locally it is often young people looking for summer income. Seldom do they forget their experiences at sea, learning what hard work really is, overcoming nature’s challenges, and learning what being part of a team requires. This industry has always provided a character building experience for our youth.
Tomorrow the Port of Bellingham Commissioners will decide whether Bellingham will become known for having the highest commercial moorage rates from Ensenada to Nome. For those who understand the importance of this durable industry, or those who have participated in fishing at some time in their lives, this is your chance to make your voices heard at the Port. Tomorrow at 3 p.m. at the Port offices, this moorage issue will be decided, and your attendance would be appreciated. If you cannot attend, then drop a comment to the Port at: email@example.com
Why is this important to the general public? Why now?
Our Port has decided to charge the commercial fishing industry the highest moorage rates on the West Coast, while recreational yachts are charged the lowest rates. Port staff declared this moorage plan “balanced.” While the commercial fishing industry has endured the highest moorage rates for over a decade now without anyone raising the issue, we raise it now because the moorage issue is important to the whole economy of Whatcom County. Simply stated, we need the jobs. Please consider: a 60 foot commercial fishing boat creates 40 times more jobs and taxes than a 60 foot yacht according to the economic study commissioned by the Port of Seattle. (see first link below)
Our industry is vibrant, profitable, and creating jobs right now. Every 20 or 30 years the fishing industry needs to spend a lot of money either replacing their boats, or refurbishing them. This is happening as we speak. We believe our Port should be aggressively soliciting these jobs, Seattle is.
These newly built vessels or major refurbishments are big dollar jobs. These are actually new jobs, that are only created during these vessel replacement booms. This spending boom is not a future prediction. The boom is upon us already. You may have noticed brand new boats showing up in the harbor. Each of these represents over $400,000 spent locally.
Moorage rates are like the signs at a gas station announcing their price per gallon. The moorage rate is what gets the business in our door. We need our moorage rates to be competitive with Seattle, which is charging approximately 25% less. This is what our industry is asking.
We want to be competitive with Seattle because only Bellingham and Seattle have what are called “maritime clusters.” Clusters are geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular field. Clusters arise because they increase the productivity with which companies can compete. (see second link below) Clusters are powerful economic drivers and job creators. Boatbuilding, marine trades, shipyards, commercial fishing, and seafood processing and marketing are all located here. We can pickle it, smoke it, sell it, make fish sticks, and market it. In addition, the food processing component of this cluster meets the agricultural community in sharing cold storages, shipping, and industrial suppliers. If all these small companies and family businesses were totaled into one industry, it would be one of the largest employers in Whatcom County.
Today, we officially have 14 people million unemployed nationwide. The unofficial number is 21 million. Nationally, the number of people falling below the poverty line and on food stamps is at 45 million. Locally, median housing prices dropped $9,000 per home sold. Countywide, this amounted to $500,000,000 in losses last year alone. These are the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. But remember, the Great Depression was known by another name, it was also called the Great Migration. People who had been unemployed for too long desperately began to migrate to whichever region got its act together and began actually creating jobs. The communities they left went into a downward economic spiral. We need to be creating jobs, getting people to move here and buy a home, not the other way around.
This is a crisis, and the Port can help create jobs if they focus on promoting job creation. It is not an accident that the 85 largest cities in our country are all ports. Ports create vibrant economies. None of these port cities were built on recreational boating. They were built upon commerce.
In recent years our port had its eye on real estate, tourism, and yachts, all industries connected with large amounts of idle money to spend. With so much wealth destroyed in the real estate mania that collapsed the world economy, it looks like those days are over for now. Economists have studied harbors carefully and discovered that, compared to condos, a “working waterfront” generates double the economic benefit to the regional economy. (see third link below) We need to refocus on the basics.
While extremely low recreational moorage rates may make some people very happy and keep a long waiting list as a reason for building a new marina designed especially for larger yachts, I am doubtful this strategy makes economic sense. A 60 foot yacht spends on average $6,000 annually in our regional economy, while a 60 foot fishing boat spends $240,000 annually. The Port has empty stalls; which boat would be better for the whole economy?
As the world struggles with the price of petroleum, two things are worth considering: one is the future of large fuel guzzling yachts, and two, while not well known, transporting cargo by water, uses half the fuel of a train and only a quarter of the fuel required by trucking. A marine highway comes directly to our door and costs nothing to maintain.
Our Port has been taxing us for 90 years and used our money to buy land, erect buildings, develop harbors, and then rent them out. The Port collects the rent but never returns any of this rent to the taxpayer. The taxpayer only gets a return on their investment in the Port through economic impacts generated by wise Port decisions. It is time our Port focus on the economic impacts of their decisions and return to a good bang for the taxpayer buck.
Commercial fishing produces jobs, which will keep our people here at home rather than moving to regions that are producing jobs. It will help us dig ourselves out of this economic hole.
Maritime industry clusters are rare and produce desirable economic impacts (jobs.) We should continue to nurture the marine cluster we have, especially considering they continue to grow even in this time of recession.
The commercial fishing industry circulated a petition to the maritime cluster industries asking the Port of Bellingham to lower commercial fishing moorage in order that we may compete with Seattle. In a short time we collected signatures from businesses representing over 2,700 local jobs in support of this moorage rate decrease. Both the Lummi and Nooksack Nations have joined the support for the decrease. For the first time, this industry has come together with one voice and said to the Port: Moorage rates matter.
Along the Puget Sound, only Whatcom County and Seattle have maritime clusters. Seattle has lower moorage rates, and far more traffic congestion.
If we lower our moorage rate, all Seattle is left with is traffic.