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December 17, 2006
Portland Press Herald
Jim Odlin, a Portland fisherman who has prospered by pursuing new ideas and taking big risks, has embarked on the biggest gamble of his career.
He and some silent partners have invested more than $24 million in a huge, floating processor ship that will allow fishermen to target herring and mackerel stocks far from shore.
He plans to freeze the fish aboard the 346-foot American Freedom and sell it overseas, mainly to Africa for food.
Odlin’s plan is good news for fishermen who will harvest for the vessel, and also for the ship’s new home port, Portland.
But in New England, where various fishing interests and other marine-related businesses compete with each other for resources, new ideas are sometimes perceived as threats, and that’s the case with Odlin’s plan.
Sports fishermen, whale-watching companies and tuna fishermen worry that the
Many lobstermen fret about the ship’s impact on the availability and price of herring bait. Massachusetts officials gripe that the American Freedom will unfairly compete with land-based herring processors in the Bay State.
Herring is a hugely important forage food for many fish species and marine mammals, and that’s why so many so people are raising questions about the American Freedom, said Ian Burnes, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group that mainly represents people who fish for striped bass.
“Folks are concerned that there isn’t enough forage fish to build a healthy population of predators, and these predators are a lot more valuable than herring,” he said. “There needs to be a great deal of caution as we go forward because what we are talking about is the productive base of the Gulf of Maine.” Odlin, though, enjoys the backing of the New England Fishery Management Council, which has been looking for ways to encourage fishermen to fish offshore, where herring are more plentiful, and take the pressure off depleted inshore stocks.
While herring trawlers fishing in near-shore waters in the Gulf of Maine have consistently reached quota limits, they have never reached the quota in Georges Bank or the waters outside the gulf, said Lori Steele, a council fishery analyst who works on herring issues.
Herring is a highly perishable fish. Groundfish, such as haddock and cod, can be covered with ice for the long trip back to port. But herring needs to be stored in tanks filled with cold sea water, a system many fishermen can’t afford. Also, fishing offshore means higher fuel costs. As a result, many fishermen, especially those in smaller vessels, can’t make money harvesting herring in offshore waters, Steele said.
She said Odlin’s plan will make fishing for herring offshore an economically viable option for fishermen, who will catch the fish and transfer them to the American Freedom for processing.
“Vessels won’t have to bring the fish home,” she said. “They can land the fish at sea. It’s a new kind of opportunity.”
Phil Ruhle, a Rhode Island groundfisherman who hopes to harvest mackerel for Odlin when the American Freedom moves to southern New England waters this winter, said the vessel has “opened a door” for fishermen whose boats would otherwise be tied up at docks because of restrictions on catching groundfish.
“We are trying every avenue to stay afloat these days,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for us to stay in business.”
David Linney, a tuna fisherman from York, said the American Freedom may indeed help take the fishing pressure off the herring stocks near shore. That would help tuna fishermen because tuna move inshore in the summer to feed on herring. But he’s not sure whether the theory will play out in the real world. “For many of us, it’s a wait-and-see type of thing,” he said. “Herring is a large piece of a major food chain. This whole resource needs to be handled carefully.”
HERRING STOCK COLLAPSE
The conflict over herring has roots in the 1960s, when massive foreign factory trawlers converged off the coast of New England. The ships pulled huge nets and processed tons of bottom fish such as haddock and midwater fish such as herring.
What had been a rich herring stock collapsed by the mid-1970s. The foreign ships left, and fishing for herring and mackerel largely ceased in the open Atlantic Ocean outside the Gulf of Maine.
In 1976, Congress effectively banned any foreign-owned factory trawlers from operating within 200 miles of the coast.
New England boats continued to catch herring inside the Gulf of Maine, supplying lobstermen and sardine canneries and selling a limited amount to foreign buyers who sat off the coast in ships that can buy fish but cannot catch them.
In the late 1990s, the New England Fishery Management Council allowed Russian mother ships to enter U.S. waters as part of “joint-venture” operations to process fish caught by U.S. trawlers. Some of Odlin’s boats were part of that operation.
The council ended the joint venture after the 2001 season to encourage American companies to set up processing plants in New England. Three processing plants have since been built in Massachusetts.
After luring companies to invest in shoreside processing plants, it’s now unfair to allow the American Freedom to operate and compete with them, said Vito Calomo, executive director of the Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Commission.
“We are allowing what we got rid of when we phased out the foreign nationals,” he said.
But Odlin said his plan achieves exactly what Congress intended when it kicked out the foreign trawlers in 1976.
“It’s all about Americanizing the fishery,” Odlin said last week as he led Portland officials and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, on a tour of the American Freedom.
PREVIOUS SHIP PROMPTS BAN
Odlin is not the first Mainer to go after herring with a big ship. In 1997, Michael Love, a North Yarmouth fisherman, with financing from Dutch investors, floated a plan to harvest and freeze herring with a factory trawler named the Atlantic Star, which was the same size as the American Freedom. The outcry was so intense that Congress that year voted to prohibit all fishing vessels more than 165 feet long from entering the herring or mackerel fishery until a fishery management plan was implemented.
Starting next summer, fishermen will only be able to catch herring near shore if they use a purse seine net, which encircles the fish when they come to the surface to feed.
The fate of the herring fishery and Maine’s $290 million lobster industry are entwined. Lobstermen depend on a stable supply of cheap herring for bait.
Last year, the price of bait herring reached record highs, and there is considerable anxiety among lobstermen that the effect of the new rules, as well as the American Freedom operation, will boost herring prices even higher next year and also lead to a bait shortage when the quota is reached.
FREEZING SOME FOR BAIT
Odlin said he plans to sell his undersized herring for bait. Because the bait will be frozen, he said, it can be stored and sold when there are gaps in the supply of fresh bait.
Odlin has also anticipated criticism that it will be difficult for regulators to track American Freedom’s activities, particularly monitoring how many groundfish and marine mammals its harvester boats catch by mistake. Congress has recently cut funding for a program that puts scientific observers on board fishing vessels. But Odlin said he will pay for an observer to be on the vessel all the time. The observer will report to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “I don’t want to hear any stories,” he said.
The American Freedom is the first large commercial ship to be home-based in Portland since the late 1930s, when the Eastern Steamship Co. pulled out of Portland, said Jeff Monroe, the city’s director of ports and transportation. He said the vessel’s arrival is a timely boost to the city’s slumping marine economy, which has been hurt by the departure of many groundfish boats to Massachusetts. The economic impact on the addition of the ship is already evident.
Before the vessel departs shortly after the first of the year, Odlin said, he will have spent more than $1 million on services and supplies from local businesses. About 50 people will work on the vessel, including 10 officers, five seamen, and 35 people who will freeze the fish. Odlin said starting pay for workers would be around $30,000 for six months’ work. He’s hiring people from around the country, but many are from Maine, he said.
Independent fishermen will harvest fish for him. Odlin said he expects about 20 boats to harvest for him during different parts of the year. Odlin, who owns five groundfish boats, said two or three of his boats will also harvest for the ship.
WILLING TO TAKE RISKS
Odlin, 52, a soft-spoken native of South Portland, is one of New England’s most successful fishermen. He sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries in New England waters.
Odlin first began fishing for his father’s dragger at age 10 and was captain of his own boat by age 18. By the time he was 35, he owned five boats and was no longer fishing himself.
While other fishermen were going out of business and selling their boats, he kept on making money. He said he tries to buy the best boats and hire the best crews and uses different strategies to keep them working, such as fishing international waters on the Grand Banks when the World Court in 1984 awarded to Canada the northern section of Georges Bank.
“I take a lot of risks and try to be innovative,” he said, “and I work for my company to be out in front.”
He began thinking about this latest venture three years in ago in part because he was looking for a way for keep his fishing boats and their crews busy throughout the year.
Ruhle, the Rhode Island groundfisherman, said a lot could go wrong with the plan. The overseas herring market could slump. The fish may be hard to find. He said the biggest uncertainty is the unstable regulatory environment.
“It has potential, but it’s a very big risk,” he said. “You never know what’s going around the corner.”