Showdown at the Port of Bellingham

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: Please feel free to drop by and visit with old acquaintances.

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.

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About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Guest Writer is for over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular writers. Their actual name and brief info is listed at the top or bottom of their articles.

Comments by Readers

Ham Hayes

Feb 14, 2011

Karl,  thank you for the well stated points.

Everyone at the Port knows of the difference in commercial moorage rates between Bellingham and other ports.  This topic has been on the Marina Advisory Committee for years as well as in front of the Commissioners.  It was also brought up during the last Port Commissioner election in 2009.  So Port officials and staff surely know that the highest rates will in fact cause more fishers to leave.  Can there be any question that this is exactly what they wish to have happen?  If the fishers leave then the marinas become totally recreational and more valuable to the high end condo real estate investors. 

It it appears that the Port stills holds selling waterfront real estate as its most important job. Too bad for the rest of the community.


Todd Granger

Feb 15, 2011

And Doug,

Old Commerce, from Bellingham Stevedoring 1940;

New Commerce, at the Port of Bellingham,
Sea Sport, Aluminum Chamber Boats, and BoonDocks?

That former local Federal Waterway designation, in front of GP, removed for a sport boats?

The former Federal Port, now the POB’s Sport Port?

Federalist #11 & 12, Alexander Hamilton
“..But in a state of disunion, these combiations might exist maratime nations, availing themselves to our universal impotence, to prescribe the conditions of our political existance; and as they have a common interest in being our carriers, and still more in our becoming theirs, they would in all probabality combine to embarrass our navagation in such a manner as would in effect destroy it, and confine us to PASSIVE COMMERCE…”

Today’s Port of Bellingham, the parking lot for derelict ships, shown best with the former Sea-Land Ship, New Horizon, in todays parking lot for inactivity in Commerce.

The local voter requirement for “Universal Impotence” has been shown as a National Port Commissioner requirement for decades!
Of course Hamilton’s former New York Water Company, on Wall Street’s being sold today to the Germans. Just like American Shipping from that Harvard on the Hill.


Doug Karlberg

Feb 15, 2011

Hi Ham,

A few weeks ago a Port employee offhandedly mused that the land under Bellingham Cold Storage was more valuable as housing.

I suggested that they study what “economic impacts” were, before they made this brilliant idea public, and had to learn what economic impacts were while a 1,000 jobless people were chasing them down the street.

Before this causal conversation ended I asked this Port employee, “if you were to sell the land under the Cold Storage to a developer for a lot of money, are you going to send the profits back to the taxpayer?”

This Port employee never answered, but just got this confused look on their face.

I explained that if the public bought the land, didn’t they deserve the profits.

This Port employee said no, because they had projects to spend the money on.

I think this simple exchange says a lot about our Port. If they can’t remember who their oldest customer is, then there is not much chance they remember the shareholder(taxpayer), either.


John Servais

Feb 15, 2011

In 1991, I encouraged Scott Walker to run for Port Commissioner.  I was part of his campaign, meeting at his house with him and his campaign chair, Tom Glenn.  I had just finished trashing the Port of Bellingham by exposing the KAP scandal which blew $4 million tax dollars out the window and the citizens were ready for reform.  Scott beat the incumbent - the first time in 60 years that a Port incumbent was replaced in an election.  Of course, the moment Scott got in office, he started ignoring his campaign promises and going the good ol boy route.  He is still entrenched. 

My point of that lead paragraph is that for years I had at least conversational access to Scott.  And we argued much about the viability of the fishing fleet.  I felt that we had the best location and support services in all of Puget Sound (Salish Sea now).  We could have a viable fishing fleet for as long as we supported one.  But Scott Walker was - and probably still is - convinced that commercial fishing days were numbered.  No future.  That the Port should not invest in facilities nor cater to the fishing fleet.  That more money could be made using the docks and shore facilities for pleasure boats, condos, hotels and maybe a resort at Post Point.  Tom Glenn drive on Zuanich Point was intended for marine services - not hotels and office buildings and boutique shops.  Restaurants, yes. 

The new Port Commissioner, Mike McAuley needs to be convinced to fight for the fishing fleet.  Jim Jorgenson just looks to Scott for how to vote.  Literally - he looks over.  We need to find a viable candidate to replace him as commissioner this coming November.  Scott is in bed with the powers who want the fishing fleet gone.  We can fight for a good vote this afternoon, but Scott and Jim will prevail.  With a new commissioner this fall, we can reverse this commission’s decisions.

The KAP scandal?  The Bellingham Herald tried covering it up then and, after it was exposed and the corrupt deals ended, the Herald made a deal with the Port to never mention the scandal again in the pages of its newspaper.  The Herald has held to that deal.  The four million dollar loss of taxpayer money is perhaps the largest monetary scandal in our county history.  Yes, it can happen again.  My bet is this article will cause the new Port Executive to ask someone what in hell was the KAP scandal.  Charlie, try Scott - and then a couple of the retired managers who are still living here.  They were not part of the corruption.  Bob H, for one, tried to stop the scandal.


Michael McAuley

Jun 29, 2011

John….I just noticed your comment that I needed to be convinced on this issue.  I met with a group of fishermen at the Weblocker in February 2010, heard their issues and encouraged them to unite, which they did as the Commercial Fishing Assoc. of Whatcom County.  I brought the moorage rate issue to the commission, was supported by our new Executive, Charlie Sheldon, and then we tussled a bit and got it done.  So, if anyone convinced me it was those guys who thanked me for meeting them personally, which I think is my job after all, but not done by any other commissioner so they said.  Anyway, I just caught your comment and giggled - don’t forget to let me know if I’m screwing this up ;-)

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