By Hal Bernton, Seattle Times – January 24, 2017
After more than three decades of sometimes turbulent operations, Washington-based Fishing Company of Alaska is ending operations and selling assets.
Renton-based Fishing Company of Alaska has sold its three factory trawlers and catch quotas to two other seafood companies, a move that will end more than three decades of its sometimes turbulent operations in the North Pacific seafood industry.
The sales agreement to Ocean Peace and O’Hara Corporation was announced Friday in an email by a Fishing Company of Alaska executive to other industry officials that was obtained by The Seattle Times. A sale price was not disclosed.
Mike Faris, chief executive of Seattle-based Ocean Peace, confirmed that his company will acquire two Fishing Company of Alaska vessels.
Frank O’Hara Jr., executive vice president of O’Hara Corporation, said his company will acquire the other vessel and half of the fishing quotas to harvests. He said these quotas will give his company a more diverse harvest that includes more higher-priced species.
“We could not be any happier for our company, all the crew and our customers and vendors,” said O’Hara, whose company is headquartered in Maine but has an operations base in Seattle.
The North Pacific waters off Alaska yield the nation’s biggest-dollar and biggest-volume harvests.
Fishing Company of Alaska, which once had a fleet of more than six vessels, was an important player in the trawl harvests that unfold in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and off the Aleutian Islands.
But Fishing Company of Alaska’s fleet has shrunk over time, in part due to high-seas disasters. Those include the 2007 sinking of the Alaska Ranger that killed five crew and the 2016 demise of the Alaska Juris, which did not result in loss of life but is the focus of a Coast Guard investigation.
Fishing Company of Alaska’s vessels are part of the head-and-gut fleet, also known as the Amendment 80 fleet, which harvests yellowfin sole, mackerel and other fish that are processed and frozen at sea. These harvests once were derby-style fisheries, where each vessel raced to grab as much as possible before fleetwide limits were reached.
But the harvests changed dramatically in 2008 as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a measure — known as Amendment 80 — that divided the catch among companies, which could then form cooperatives. And Fishing Company of Alaska’s extensive catch history enabled it to qualify for sizable harvest quotas that became a key asset that boosted its value.
Fishing company Alaska was founded by the late Karena Adler, of Mercer Island, who died last year, after a pioneering career as a woman executive in a seafood industry where the top echelons are dominated by men. The company sale negotiations date back to the time when she still led the company, which is now owned by her children.
“We talked many times about the sale,” said Mike Faris, of Ocean Peace. “She was a tiny lady with a big spirit and strong will, and I really appreciated her spirit.”
O’Hara said his company also has a long relationship with Fishing Company of Alaska, and assisted them in joining a cooperative formed after the 2008 change in harvests.
Both under Adler’s leadership and after her death, company operations repeatedly came under federal scrutiny.
In 2008, the Fishing Company of Alaska paid almost $450,000 to NOAA Fisheries to settle charges of fishing in closed areas and other illegal activity by several of its factory ships.
At that time, it was one of the largest fines ever paid for fishery conservation violations.
The maintenance of the company’s aging fleet of factory trawlers has been another issue, and a big focus for Coast Guard investigators as they looked into the sinkings of the Alaska Ranger and the Alaska Juris last summer.
The Coast Guard also has looked into the company’s close ties with a Japanese fish buyer, which purchased all of the company’s catch and kept small cadres of its employees aboard the vessels.
Over the years, the Coast Guard received reports of conflicts with licensed U.S. crew, including three complaints filed with the Coast Guard in 2005 alleging assaults by a Japanese fishmaster on a U.S. mate working for Fishing Company of Alaska.
In the aftermath of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger, a Coast Guard marine board was concerned enough about the influence of Japanese crew to include a recommendation to investigate whether the vessel was “improperly under control of an unlicensed non-U.S. citizen.”
Concerns about Japanese control of the Alaska Juris also came up during December Coast Guard hearings on the sinking of that vessel last summer, which forced the 46 crew to abandon ship.
“In my observation, he (the fishmaster) was definitely the guy in charge, telling the captain what course to follow,” said the vessel’s chief engineer Eddie Hernandez, who testified that he had witnessed the Japanese fishmaster at the wheel of the Juris and charting a course.
The vessel’s captain, Paul Jopling, acknowledged during the hearings that he had sparred with the Japanese fishmaster over safety issues, but said he always retained command of the vessel.
Faris, of Ocean Peace, said he has no plans to use any Japanese fishmasters aboard the two vessels that his company acquires in the sale.
Faris said that his company intends to keep operating those vessels but will improve them: “We will invest heavily in the vessels and bring them up to the level of safety and efficiency that we are real comfortable with.”
The third Fishing Company of Alaska vessel also will continue to operate.
O’Hara said it will be one of five that his company uses in Bering Sea harvests, and that his company is devoted to upgrading the vessels.
In a statement released to The Seattle Times, O’Hara wrote, “best of luck to the Adler family … their crew and ships are in good hands between Ocean Peace Inc. and O’Hara Corporation.”