Doug Karlberg, a local commercial fisherman, provides this informative article.
The Port met Tuesday afternoon to take up the request by fishermen for moorage rates that would be competitive with other ports, like Seattle. This turned out to be one of the most unusual Port meetings I have ever attended.
It was a standing-room-only crowd, packed like sardines behind the Commissioners and staff. It was clear they had all known each other for years, quietly greeting one another as old friends with a long shared history. Not just fishermen, but representatives of the entire industry surrounding the wide-ranging fishing fleet home-ported in Bellingham. The white hair of long-experienced survivors of a dynamic business was apparent throughout the crowd, each with decades of experience. These were not just a bunch of fishermen, the CEO pioneers of this multi-million dollar industry also showed up with prepared speeches in hand.
Our newest and youngest Commissioner, who chaired the meeting, looked at the crowd and with his first uttered breath, announced that the agenda would be changed, placing the moorage issue first. A wise decision. Port staff scurried to open windows. Another wise decision.
Public testimony began. From the 73 year old, small-time fisherman who still fishes because that is who he is, to the young welder who took time off from work to show up in his soiled Carhartt uniform, to the family head of Bornstein Seafoods whose family began their seafood processing business here 80 years ago, to the representatives of Bellingham Cold Storage-the core of one of this nation’s largest and most successful seafood complexes-founded 65 years ago with the support of a different breed of port managers than we have today.
This group of over 100 came together at the last minute, organized with a few phone calls. They needed no urging to attend. Some had been waiting for years to speak with one voice to our Port. This was their day. They did not have to ask each other what to say; they all knew this script by heart. Quietly, politely but firmly, and with a rare unanimous voice, they told the Port Commissioners and staff that our industry had been built into a large and economically important industry in Whatcom County. Although diverse, together they represented one of the largest and oldest port customers and a major private employer. They have deep experience in this industry and are profitable in the midst of this recession. They are spending money and hiring people, and if the port will support them, they will create more local jobs, just like they have done for the last 100 years. You could tell they were proud of their collective accomplishments, and proud of their community. Implicitly, they were also reminding the Commissioners that when the Port needed the seafood industry, the industry responded.
One Port staff member began with a Power Point presentation of complex calculations and proceeded to get lost in pages and pages of mind-boggling equations that not only lost the crowd, but the Commissioners, too. In an attempt to salvage his presentation, he pronounced that his months of work with a select citizen committee had come up with fair and balanced moorage rates.
We knew this 15-member moorage committee only had one fisherman. Their model produced the highest commercial rates and lowest yacht moorage rates on the West Coast. One local charter company currently advertises the “lowest moorage rates on the West Coast” and, coincidentally, these folks had the guiding hand in developing the rates. The single voting fisherman on this committee made a valiant effort, but never really stood a chance.
Port Commissioners then took turns laying out their rationale for not lowering moorage rates. Most of it boiled down to not wanting to make other boaters angry. The Port’s philosophy is that water is priced the same. Unfortunately, many fishers had attended the last Port meeting where the mortgage company First Title got a 16% rent reduction because they could rent land cheaper elsewhere. The entire decision to allow that business to remain competitive took five minutes. Apparently land-based businesses are treated differently in order to keep them as customers. There was not a single word about other ports charging varied rates to create jobs.
You could tell two of the Commissioners were nervous about their excuses for such an uncompetitive commercial moorage fee structure. These two literally could not admit out loud that we had the highest commercial moorage and lowest yacht rates on the coast. In their defense, this was a pretty grim crowd by now. Dead quiet. The silence was intimidating.
And then it happened. Staff, along with one Commissioner, started a little discussion about web lockers and how they were a great deal for fishermen and were subsidized below market rates. Maybe it was a desperate attempt at an excuse for the worst moorage rates around, or maybe they just didn’t listen, because even though they had been warned there was more to the web locker story, they brought it up anyway. I sat and listened to how the Port was undercharging fishermen for web lockers. “A damn subsidy we been givin’ ya,” was the clear message from the one Commissioner. This staffer happened to be standing right in front of a gentleman from Bellingham Cold Storage. I nearly choked. The audience went from grim, to silent, to red faced. I now understood that almost every person in that room had more historic knowledge of the Port than any of the staff or Commissioners. I also knew one staffer and one Commissioner did not listen well.
Here is the inside story of three of the web lockers. One was built by the federal government for the fishermen to move into the new breakwater built in 1958. The Port wanted to build a breakwater marina but did not have the money. The federal government had the funds but insisted the Port have customers to fill the marina, and that the marina’s primary purpose was commerce and jobs. The Port went to the fishermen and asked if they would move their boats from various locations to the marina and become Port customers. They agreed, and Bellingham Cold Storage generously donated two more web lockers, bringing the total to three. The Port has been renting the three lockers it received as gifts to the fishermen for 53 years now, and during this meeting they had the gall to call it a subsidy from the Port. They have received millions in rent for buildings they did not pay for to spend any way they wished.
The highlight of the evening was when our youngest and newest Commissioner got his chance to speak. Commissioner McAuley shuffled through personal papers from his own research. He had determined Bellingham was probably the best geographically located seafood port on the coast, and our seafood industry was worth billions. If we took care of this industry, it would be here for another 100 years, creating wealth and employment. McCauley then proposed a vote on a resolution to reduce moorage fees for fishermen in order to become competitive with Seattle. His suggestion was greeted with thunderous applause.
The other two Commissioners wanted to delay for more study. McAuley insisted on a vote. The other two obviously did not want to tell this crowd no, but McAuley insisted again. The motion went down 2-1.
Commissioner McAuley’s determination was remarkable in recent Port history. First, he did his own research and came to a conclusion our Port has been unable to verbalize for years. Bellingham, as a port, has a natural advantage that would allow it to be a national leader in the seafood industry forever if we would only support it. Second, he had the guts to publicly disagree with his fellow Commissioners on principle. There has not been a split vote at a Port of Bellingham Commission since Woodrow Wilson was president.
During the discussion of lower commercial rates, Commissioners voiced concerns over their general income stream. The recession is causing land-based tenants to demand discounts, move off Port property, or implode financially leaving unpaid rent and empty buildings. It was almost as if the Commissioners were discovering, finally, there was a recession out there. They seemed surprised when Aluminum Chambered Boats imploded and left them without a tenant. It made me wonder if the Port was becoming disconnected from its customers. At this point, the recession should be no surprise. Nor should the implosion of a recreational boat manufacturer during a recession be a surprise. The Port has a long history with recreational boat building and they should know that when a huge quantity of boats are being built, there is a recession just around the corner and most of those boat builders are going to implode. This is not the first recession in Bellingham, nor the first implosion of recreational boat-builders. During this discussion, you could feel the audience silently reminding the Port that the seafood industry was still in business after all these years.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the evening was what was not said. Here, in one room, were some of the Port’s launch customers, their oldest and most loyal customers. These folks have created thousands of jobs, risked their savings and often mortgaged their homes. They have been successful, and a large portion of this success has been advantageous to the Port.
This meeting was a rare gathering of the whole industry, from small fishermen and crafts people, to industry CEO’s. For the first time in far too long, our tribal neighbors joined us for a common goal, an incredibly proud achievement. There was a lot of money in that crowd, but it did not show or matter one iota. Some of these people had enough money to buy yachts, but they chose to feed people instead, and they have succeeded in feeding millions. We all shared common beginnings of incredibly hard work, with the calluses to prove it. We had often pulled competitors out of a bind or loaned them a few bucks to get through hard times. Our entire culture was represented in one room. It was a proud night, no matter the outcome.
But the turnout at this meeting was an additional sign that communication has broken down between port customers and staff. As difficult as this meeting might have been, at least we opened clear lines of communication. Everyone wants our Port to function at its peak efficiency, and we especially need the Port to function during this recession.
It would have been gracious for the Port to thank this industry for the long journey we have been on together, but those gracious words were not to be heard last night. Which tells me we have more work to do.
Sadly, the youngsters currently managing our Port have forgotten the girl that brought them to the dance 90 years ago. But if they look around at their stable of industries, commercial fishing is still spending money and hiring. And with declining Port revenues, I think you are going to us again.
On a personal note, I have serious disagreements with some of the Commissioners and staff at the Port of Bellingham. These disagreement are over Port policies only. I purposely haven’t named specific commisssioners. I have nothing personal against them, and they have been accommodating. Candor is critical, but so is respect. Mr. Sheldon gets a pass, as he is new. The pass will not last forever.
Finally, thank you to John Servais and the invaluable public service he supplies providing a forum to get important views out to the public, which, without his blog site, would simply not be heard in our community.