The fishing fleet in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, much of which is homeported here, needs to be replaced. Leaders are pushing for Washington to get its share of that business.

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Seattle’s homeowners aren’t the only ones getting grayer. The fleet that is the backbone of Washington’s fishing industry is getting older, too.

Vessels average 40 years old, although their ages vary widely. Of the 5,000 ships at work off Alaska, 414 of these federally permitted vessels are more than 58 feet in length. A total of 175 were built in the 1970s. Replacing them will be a mammoth undertaking, but the state could see big benefits if it captures some of the action.

The information comes from a new report by  McDowell Group consultants, prepared for the Port of Seattle and the Washington Maritime Federation. And yes, you’ve seen some of these vessels on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” For example, the crab boat Wizard, homeported in Seattle, was built for the Navy in 1945.

Mark Gleason of the Maritime Federation said, “Our members see this as a huge opportunity, for ports, shipowners, seafood companies, labor, shipyards, naval architecture firms… It’s one of the biggest opportunities to come to this region in maritime in decades.”

The industry association estimates that maritime businesses already have a combined $30 billion economic impact on the state. The seafood industry alone supports 15,000 jobs paying $1 billion annually in wages in Washington.

Ted Fick, chief executive of the Port of Seattle, told me that the report offers fresh intelligence on shipbuilding needs over the next 10 years. Three vessels a year need to be built between 2017 and 2021, and five a year after that. Over the past 15 years, only about one new ship a year has been laid down. “It’s a major league win-win” for the region, if financing and some other roadblocks can be cleared away,” he said.

One innovation, being explored by Vigor, is standardized hulls, which would allow ships to be built in an assembly-line style, as opposed to the more expensive one-offs. Anacortes-based Dakota Creek Industries has an advanced trawler design.

Fleet owners have incentives: Newer ships increase earnings with more sophisticated processing capacity, catching the right fish and saving on fuel and maintenance. Pressure is also coming from the rationalization of fisheries, to prevent overfishing. Community Development Quota groups in Alaska are taking ownership stakes in vessels, too.

Unlike many world fisheries suffering from climate change and acidification, the North Pacific and Bering Sea off Alaska are highly sustainable. Recapitalizing the fleet would enhance this. The ships wouldn’t be adding capacity but efficiency.

Fick said the next steps include collaboration among the industry, educational institutions and the government to design more attractive financing and keep skilled workers and engineers in the pipeline, as well as looking at ways the port’s real-estate portfolio could further support the fishing industry. “It’s a great future for the industry,” he said. ” We want to be a key part of making the plan actionable.” Details are expected to be fleshed out after the first of the year.

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