In the latest blow to the maritime industry along the Ship Canal, Western Pioneer of Ballard is shutting down its shipping operations after...

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In the latest blow to the maritime industry along the Ship Canal, Western Pioneer of Ballard is shutting down its shipping operations after more than 30 years.

The closing will cost 50 people their jobs and leave at least three Alaska villages without their seaborne supply line. But for the working waterfront at Salmon Bay, it’s part of a steady decline that’s been happening for two decades.

Western Pioneer, which will close its terminal west of the Ballard Bridge next month, is one of Seattle’s last old-style “break-bulk” shipping companies, which handle cargo on pallets instead of in large shipping containers.

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The family-owned company, started in 1972 by brothers Max and Amigo Soriano with a single boat, thrived, carrying groceries, hardware and clothing north to Alaska and fish and crab back south to Seattle.

But changes in the way fish are caught and distributed around the world punished small shippers such as Western Pioneer. Alaska salmon and pollock are increasingly caught by large fishing concerns and shipped directly to market in Europe or Asia — particularly China — instead of being distributed through Seattle.

Western Pioneer president Larry Soriano said his company still had plenty of northbound cargo — supplies for Alaska communities it served — but it couldn’t survive without more southbound business. He said he and his siblings took a hard look at their shipping business and decided its time had come.

“The future was not going to improve,” said Soriano, Max’s son. “With our rate structure, we needed to have decent loads both north and south to make it work.

“This kind of shipping — smaller vessels, not using containers — is somewhat of a dying ember.”

The same might be said of much of the industrial waterfront along Salmon Bay. Western Pioneer Shipping, which once employed 200 people, is the second mainstay of the neighborhood to close this year. In January, Marco Shipyard, which at its peak in the 1980s employed 800 people, shut down because of a lack of orders for new vessels.

The Seattle fishing fleet has shrunk because of consolidation and changes in the way Alaska fisheries are managed. Fishermen’s Terminal, the traditional homeport of the North Pacific fishing fleet, in 2002 opened to pleasure craft because there weren’t enough commercial vessels.

Seattle’s container port is booming with cargo from Asia, but the old break-bulk shipping companies that travel to Alaska — and employ U.S. crews — are struggling.

As recently as 1990, there were three Seattle firms operating 20 cargo ships between here and Alaska. Now there will be one company, Coastal Transportation, which is buying two of Western’s boats to run a fleet of eight.

“What’s happening with us, quite frankly, is just a microcosm of the whole Alaskan fishing industry, which has consolidated,” said Coastal’s owner, Peter Strong. “It’s a trend we’re seeing in every area of the Alaskan seafood industry based in Seattle.”

Larry Soriano said the strong local job market made the decision less painful. He’s already fielding calls from other employers looking for workers. “Most of our people have real skills, and they’re very marketable,” he said. “My sense is that nobody is going to be without a job for very long — unless they want to be.”

Employees said the announcement last week came without warning, and some have tried to explore ways to keep the business going after Western Pioneer closes its terminal.

“We’re all just heartbroken,” said Nancy Farrell, a shipping service coordinator who’s been with Western Pioneer since 1989. “We’ve got the will to do the business. We just don’t have anybody who wants to own us.”

Greg Coleman, captain of the Bluefin, which returned to Seattle this week, said he and his crew learned via e-mail while at sea that it would be their last trip for Western Pioneer.

“This is the only thing I know how to do,” Coleman said. “We’ll all land on our feet, but who knows where it will take us.”

Western Pioneer’s withdrawal also leaves three Alaska villages without their supply line. Coastal Transportation already serves most of Western Pioneer’s ports of call, and will offer seasonal coverage to three others, Port Moller, St. Paul and Larsen Bay.

But Strong said federal shipping rules effectively prevent Coastal from continuing service to three villages in southeast Alaska: Gustavus, Pelican and Tenakee Springs. The communities will have to get their supplies brought in on smaller boats or by air, or find another shipper.

“We’re still kind of reeling from this and trying to figure out how it will work,” said Becky King, manager at Bear Track Mercantile in Gustavus. “No one was prepared. We would have made our last barge order differently. This freight situation makes it extremely difficult to do business here.”

Also trying to adjust is Greg Lyle, whose family owns the Ballard waterfront land where Western Pioneer operates its terminal, on the former site of the Seattle Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Co. Lyle isn’t optimistic about finding another industry to move in.

“I certainly hope we can find a healthy industrial customer,” he said. “But I think we’d be hard pressed to find a marine-related one given all the vacant waterfront property in Seattle.

“Unless the zoning changes, we will likely end up with four acres of self-storage,” he said.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or tboyer@seattletimes.com