Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal on the cusp of a revival

 SEATTLE (AP) – As a fisherman, Paul Matson knows that good news is a fleeting friend, terrific for a quick chat but always checking her watch. Bad news, in turn, lingers like a deadbeat cousin stitched to the living room sofa.

So forgive his hesitation to say things have turned around for good at Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal. But he will say things look pretty nice – for now.

“The Port of Seattle, over the past few years, has been much more responsive to our needs,” said Matson, who has had a boat at the terminal for 25 years. “Things are much better than they’ve been.”

Indeed, the terminal, one of the few remaining visible anchors to Seattle’s commercial and cultural past, is on the cusp of a genuine revival, if both (consistently) pessimistic fishermen and (relentlessly) optimistic port officials are correct.

Millions of dollars’ worth of dock restoration is nearly complete and tourists and locals are filling its restaurants and lining up at off-the-boat fish sellers along the West Wall.

But one strong indication of the fishing docks’ potential might be found miles away from the terminal, in Everett and in other coastal Washington cities, where small fishing terminals are seeing fleets dwindle and waterfront development pressures build.

This year alone, five sizable purse seiners have moved from Everett to Seattle, and more are rumored to be on the way next winter after fishing season. While the numbers don’t yet indicate a massive shift, it’s an indication that years of trend toward boat relocation might have reversed.

Mick Shultz, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle, said $22 million in improvements has made the terminal more appealing to fishermen. “It appears to be paying off,” he said.

Over the past decade, the port has rebuilt the west and south walls, replaced docks 3 and 4, and rebuilt docks 7, 8 and 9 – portions of which dated back to 1913. The second part of the renovation, called Phase 2, will replace the remaining three docks with two new ones.

The result is larger slips that can hold vessels larger than 55 feet along with heavy-duty floating concrete docks. In all, the terminal can accommodate about 520 ships, depending on length.

“Ninety-nine percent of the work (of Phase 1) is done,” Shultz said. “Everyone appears happy with it.”

Matson agreed, saying that in his experience, the past decade has been a sea change for the terminal. “I feel strongly that the port listens to us now,” he said. “That wasn’t always the case.”

Fishermen at the terminal have long worried that port officials wanted to open the terminal up for other uses, such as for monied yachtsmen and wealthy developers. In recent years, however, the port has reaffirmed its commitment to the fleet, Shultz said.

While this relationship has improved in Seattle, elsewhere, commercial fishermen are feeling the pinch of diminishing fleets, loss of political power and an insatiable thirst for waterfront property. Everett, once one of the largest fishing ports in Washington, largely abandoned its commercial fleet last year.

The final straw occurred in late 2006 and early 2007, when the port scheduled the removal of net-storage sheds to make way for a massive, terminal-side development that includes 600 condominiums, shops and offices. Other, smaller, terminals are seeing a similar pinch.

Doug Dixon, general manager of Pacific Fisherman Shipyard Inc. near Salmon Bay in Seattle, said that whatever the reason, business is booming, even though the fleet is getting smaller.

While it might be true that boats are getting pushed out elsewhere and coming to Seattle, Dixon said, he gave more credit to the improvements at the terminal.

“I think the only reason some moved away is (the port) had a big construction process under way,” he said. “With the construction gone, they can come back.”

For Pacific and, to a degree, for the terminal, business is good despite a general reduction of the size of the fishing fleet. For example, the Alaskan king crab fleet had dropped from 290 to 90 boats in three years.

But the industry that remains is healthier than ever, Dixon asserted.

He credited “rationalization” – the process of awarding guaranteed annual catch quotas to boat owners – for making the remaining vessel operators much more willing to make sizable investments in their boats.

This, in turn, has made fewer people wealthier. As luck would have it, those happen to be Dixon’s customers.

“The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer, and we didn’t do business with the poor in the first place,” he said.

But even as the others enjoy the current revival, they worry about its permanence.

For Dixon, it’s the hundreds of new and proposed residential condos that stare down on his industrial shipyards – lots that have supported boat work back to 1880s.

Now, he endures busybody neighbors who “call 911 every time they hear a noise,” he said. “They only care about their view corridor.”

As for Matson, 51, who was putting the last touches on his 48-foot seiner before heading to Alaska, he will always worry about the port’s purported flirtation with increasing the number of pleasure craft, among other long-standing disputes.

It’s a working terminal, he said, much like the wooden boats it berths: Only constant attention keeps leaks at bay.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson, who listed fishing as a favorite hobby. 

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