America's Finest

America’s Finest, pictured in 2017, is a state-of-the-art fishing vessel built at Dakota Creek Industries.

ANACORTES — Dakota Creek Industries owner Mike Nelson and his staff have been looking for ways to appease federal lawmakers following the mistake the company made in building the $75 million fishing vessel America’s Finest.

The mistake — using too much foreign-formed steel in the vessel’s hull — requires a waiver from the U.S. Congress in order for the ship to fish domestically. The waiver would be for the Jones Act, which requires domestic fishing vessels be built in the U.S.

These days, Nelson glances frequently at his cell phone hoping for good news concerning his company’s lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.

“There could be something new at any moment,” Nelson said.

Dakota Creek has proposed buying a $700,000 cold-forming press machine as one way to make amends for its mistake. That type of machine, which can bend unheated steel, was used overseas to form part of the hull of America’s Finest.

That overseas forming process was what disqualified the vessel from Jones Act certification.

Dakota Creek would give the cold-forming machine to Seattle-based Seaport Steel so that boat builders throughout the region could have access to it, enabling them to build more advanced and more fuel-efficient hulls.

The purchase of the machine could help the embattled shipyard and Fishermen’s Finest, which contracted to have the ship built, get on the good side of lawmakers and the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), a powerful coalition that represents the U.S. maritime industry.

“We are trying to work to resolve differences to make this situation acceptable to AMP,” Nelson said.

Nelson said that appeasing AMP would go a long way toward helping Dakota Creek acquire the waiver.

Over the past 20 years, 124 vessels have been granted Jones Act waivers.

One piece of the puzzle fell into place last month after U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen added an amendment to the U.S. House of Representatives Coast Guard budget bill that waives the Jones Act requirements for America’s Finest. The Coast Guard certifies that vessels abide by the Jones Act.

The House bill was introduced May 18. There has been no action from the U.S. Senate, though.

Locally, there has been support for Dakota Creek, such as letters to lawmakers from the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Anacortes supporting a waiver.

But there has also been opposition, said Fishermen’s Finest President Dennis Moran.

“We are in the midst of a tussle,” Moran said. “There’s a lot of negativity and darkness we hadn’t expected.”

Most of that resistance is coming from fishing companies, Moran said.

For instance, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association and United Catcher Boats maritime trade groups sent letters to AMP that include opposing the waiver without first having a Coast Guard investigation.

Moran said many fishing companies that are part of those groups are only pretending to support the Jones Act.

“The thinking is, if they murder (Dakota Creek), then they can hold that body up and say, ‘See, it’s impossible to build a Jones Act fishing vessel in the U.S.,” Moran said. “They want Congress to repeal (the Jones Act) so they can build boats in Norway or wherever. They want to bring down the Jones Act by pretending to defend it.”

Nelson said he and his staff are now quite familiar with the Jones Act after discovering the company’s mistake earlier this year.

He said he’s pained by the fact that the company could have gone another route with the hull forming.

“We found out we didn’t even need to do it that way,” Nelson said. “The funny thing is, we are 100 percent supporters of the Jones Act. Now we are trying to get through this situation and not get the death sentence.”

The Jones Act essentially helps keep the nation’s maritime industry afloat, Nelson said.

“If (the Jones Act) was gone, there wouldn’t be any shipyards here doing new construction,” Nelson said. “It would be the end for our industry.”

But the Jones Act also makes it so shipyards cannot compete globally. Building boats is cheaper overseas where there’s less regulation, cheaper labor and more infrastructure, Nelson said.

A grim example: If the $75 million America’s Finest doesn’t get a Jones Act waiver, it would fetch only about $50 million if sold abroad.

“We are focused on the waiver,” Nelson said. “We have to be.”

— Reporter Aaron Weinberg: 360-416-2145, aweinberg@skagitpublishing.com, Facebook.com/byaaronweinberg

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