Anacortes can now celebrate with Dakota Creek Industries that its state-of-the-art fishing vessel, America’s Finest, will fish in U.S. waters.
After a year-and-a-half of waiting (and suffering), both Dakota Creek and Kirkland-based Fishermen’s Finest can get back to their respective businesses — building boats and catching fish.
Both survived, but the ordeal and its outcome raise questions about whether a century-old law needs a congressional makeover.
Some have said that the family-owned Dakota Creek should have known all the rules about fishing vessels when it built the $75 million American’s Finest. They sent U.S. steel to Holland to be bent by special machines. The result was that 9 percent of the steel in the ship’s hull was worked on in another country. The 1920 Jones Act only allows 1.5 percent, though that rule is not in the original law. It became a sort of “case law” due to later U.S. Coast Guard rulings. That means the law has evolved for nearly 100 years without congressional input.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard agreed Dakota Creek’s error was unintentional.
In the meantime, Dakota Creek lost staff, money and time and faced the possible end of their family-owned business if they didn’t get a congressional waiver followed by the Coast Guard’s OK.
Fishermen’s Finest, which was simply investing in a new ship, will continue to pay a price, although it was not that company’s mistake. Fishing industry competitors and government officials from Alaska used the error to convince politicians to attach 53 restrictions to the waiver America’s Finest needed to avoid being sold to a foreign competitor.
Those restrictions affect not only the new ship but also the two others owned by Fishermen’s Finest. In the world of business, that doesn’t make much sense. Fishermen’s Finest was buying a product, but now must suffer a six-year penalty over its entire fleet in order to use it.
It’s like saying that Washington will only let you drive your expensive special-order new car in this state if you don’t drive any of your cars over 25 mph for six years because the new American-made car had too many foreign parts. That horse left the barn on wheels years ago. The Japanese Toyota Camry is more American these days than most vehicles carrying domestic names like Buick and Ford.
Right or wrong, the auto industry changed with a global economy, and for the same reasons, it may be time that Congress revisit the Jones Act — or the entire structure of U.S. manufacturing industries.
The bottom line is that the trouble with America’s Finest became about politics, power and money, which can quickly turn logic on its head. Most of us will probably never know the many layers of politics that led to the resolution that allows America’s Finest to work in U.S. waters. What is clear is that an error involving the bending of some U.S. steel nearly forced a U.S.-made ship to fly a foreign flag — at great expense to two American companies and their many Washington employees.
Other fishing companies would argue that the restrictions on Fishermen’s Finest were meant to level the playing field. America’s Finest gets its advantage from new technology and its investment, not the steel in its hull.
The technology will force efficiency and raise the bar on what comes next, such as more environment-friendly ships in our increasingly damaged waters.
The Alaskan fishing fleet is old and tired. Replacements will be expensive, but businesses have to invest in themselves. Foreign competitors face similar problems with aging fleets. Making better ships here raises the bar for all.
The fact that America’s Finest will remain a U.S. ship is a victory for Dakota Creek, Fishermen’s Finest, Anacortes and ultimately, the fishing industry. Of course, questions remain as to whether there will be enough fish to sustain the industry at all if we don’t do more to clean up the way we live and reduce pollution in the water.
But for now, we can be happy this particular battle is over, and people can get back to work.