Diesel fuel is a necessary part of today’s fishing businesses, but let’s face it. If we could get by with less of it—or find a long-term substitute that was cheaper, cleaner and just as reliable —then wouldn’t we want to?
Fishermen in places as far-flung as Maine, Massachusetts, Washington and Alaska think so, and they are stepping up to do something about it. And they’re using bottom-up approaches that are tailor-made for their operations, looking to prevent or in some cases outrun burdensome, inflexible top-down mandates.
In Sitka, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) is supporting the installation of a hybrid electric engine on the salmon troller f/v I Gotta, making it one of the first commercial fishing boats in the country to incorporate battery-powered propulsion.
This pioneering work, underwritten in part by a Seafood Industry Climate Award from the Acme Smoked Fish Foundation, is the latest step in ALFA’s multi-year effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the Alaska fishing fleet.
Since 2015, the organization has partnered with Alaska-based engineer Chandler Kemp, now at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus, to increase fuel use awareness, increase energy efficiency and lower the carbon footprint of the fleet.
“Given the havoc climate change is wreaking on our fisheries, the work is both a priority and a necessity,” said Linda Behnken, a Sitka fisherman and ALFA’s executive director. “Our ultimate goal is a fossil fuel-free fleet; we want to reduce operating costs for our fleet while doing our part to stop ocean acidification and climate change.”
In Massachusetts last month, the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Development Program (GFWDP) received a $2 million Congressional grant to launch a program that they are calling Energy Efficient Fisheries.
The first-of-its kind statewide program includes a fishing and seafood industry baseline and energy needs assessment, fishing vessel energy audits, professional development for advanced technology installation and service, and consultancy services for business owners seeking to access low-cost capital and grant funding for fuel-efficiency investments.
“We are in crisis mode,” GFWDP President Angela Sanfilippo explained. “The price of fuel is going up, and the price of fish is coming down. And as fishermen, we want to do our part on climate change. We decided that this is the best place to start: by figuring out how to make our fleet more modern and efficient.”
In Maine, retired lobsterman Richard Nelson and ecologist John Hagan have been puzzling over a low-carbon future for that state’s 4,686 lobster boats. In their 2022 report “EV on H2O: The Feasibility of Electrifying Maine’s Lobster Fleet,” they evaluated a suite of alternative propulsion methods for the fleet’s inshore and offshore vessels.
Biofuels, the report concluded, are easy to use on fishing vessels and require no new equipment, but the biofuel supply and distribution system in Maine is not yet scaled to supply the fleet’s needs.
Other promising options include serial hybrid configurations (in which either batteries or a diesel genset provide electricity to a motor that turns the shaft), parallel hybrid configurations (in which both a diesel engine and a battery-powered electric motor are attached to the shaft), and hydrogen (similar to a serial hybrid system, but with fuel cells instead of a diesel genset charging the battery bank).
While all of these technologies have potential, the ideal choice will depend on the energy use patterns of each vessel. Testing out these innovations through pilot projects is a necessary first step.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” agreed Pete Knutson, who gillnets for salmon in Puget Sound and Southeast Alaska and has at times used biodiesel to power one of his vessels, the f/v Loki. The technology works well in the Loki’s 6-71 Detroit Diesel, but even at a major maritime hub like Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, it is hard to acquire a consistent supply of biodiesel.
Biodiesel could soon become easier to access as a result of new clean fuels incentive programs in West Coast states. But ironically, the older, more basic marine engines that may be best suited to handle biodiesel are slowly being phased out due to newer engine emissions standards set by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB).
Notably, these standards govern only particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions associated with poor local air quality, but do not govern greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change.
The modern Tier-3 and Tier-4 engines that now dominate the marine engine marketplace were designed to comply with these air quality standards. But some fishermen worry that biodiesel, which is denser than conventional diesel fuel and does not vaporize as easily, won’t work in these newer engines’ fuel injection systems. For fishing vessel owners who find themselves covered under new EPA and CARB regulations, there’s little time to lose in finding a workable future-proof solution.
“At the moment, there are basically two different routes to lowering emissions on fishing vessels,” Knutson explained. “You can either install a new modern engine, or you can continue using your old engine and just swap in a low-emissions fuel like biodiesel. Different options are going to work better for different operations.”
Examples like this one highlight the need to make versatility a central principle of the transition to a low- or zero-carbon fishing fleet. Technology-specific incentives can lock in specific pathways and stall innovation.
With public funding for energy transition projects being a top priority in federal spending packages like the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, as well as state-level spending, it’s time to think about what a more varied menu of options for the fleet would look like.
To that end, in recent months, fishing community advocates from coast to coast have begun calling on state and federal officials to fund and facilitate diverse, flexible and fishermen-led innovation aimed at reducing fuel expenses and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. fishing industry.
In November 2022, over 190 U.S. fishing businesses and organizations (including PCFFA) submitted a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asking that $100 million of the $2.6 billion that the agency received in the Inflation Reduction Act for expenses related to “coastal communities and climate resilience” be used to “support and/or finance clean energy opportunities for the nation’s small-boat fishing fleet, including vessel retrofits and electric conversions, pilot projects demonstrating new technologies and outreach and education.”
Then in December 2022, commercial fishing associations from New England, the West Coast, and Alaska (again including PCFFA) asked the EPA to include vessel emissions reduction innovations as an eligible investment in the new “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund,” also established by the Inflation Reduction Act.
The fund makes an astounding $27 billion available for lending to businesses and households across America through “green banks,” or mission-driven institutions that leverage public and private capital to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
“To support practical, cost-effective, and voluntary emissions reductions within the fishing industry,” the letter stated. “We recommend the streamlining of existing federal programs as well as the establishment of new and diverse dedicated funding streams to support bottom-up planning and innovation.”
“Funding for energy efficiency and conservation, alternative fuels technology development, and engine upgrades can fill a niche gap and increase industry resilience not only by reducing vessel emissions but also by achieving cost savings, safety improvements and fleet modernization,” the letter continued.
On the heels of these calls for policy action, PCFFA is sponsoring a series of fishermen interviews to better understand the immediate and long-term needs of the fleet and inform detailed policy recommendations to make fuel efficiency and alternative fuels innovations cost-effective and deployable at scale.
The effort is being led by Sarah Schumann (co-author of this article and principal of Shining Sea Fisheries Consulting). Fishermen interested in contributing views and experiences to the interview project are encouraged to contact Schumann, whose phone and email can be found at the bottom of this column.
Fishermen interested in this topic are also invited to join the Fishery Friendly Climate Action campaign’s email discussion list, which Schumann also oversees. That listserv offers a cross-regional conversation space for U.S. fishermen and helps facilitate knowledge exchange and bottom-up collective action in support of climate solutions that work for U.S. fisheries and not at their expense.
With the fishing industry’s tinkerers, analysts and advocates joining forces from coast to coast, it’s a sure bet that strong and innovative vessel energy solutions will soon be forthcoming. And in every port, we can be sure that there are vessel owners eager to learn what these solutions will be.
Information about ALFA’s fuel efficiency and alternative propulsion innovation work can be found at: www.alfafish.org/fuel-efficiency
Information about the Massachusetts-based Energy Efficient Fisheries project can be found at: www.energyefficient.fish
The report “EV on H2O: The Feasibility of Electrifying Maine’s Lobster Fleet” can be found at: www.ourclimatecommon.org
Policy explainers, webinars and fishermen-led statements in support of climate action that works for fisheries and not at their expense can be found at: www.fisheryfriendlyclimateaction.org
Sarah Schumann fishes out of Point Judith, Rhode Island and Dillingham, Alaska and is the principal of Shining Sea Fisheries Consulting and coordinator of the grassroots Fishery Friendly Climate Action campaign. She may be reached at email@example.com and (401) 297-6273.
Glen Spain is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He is also the West Coast commercial fishing industry representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) Habitat Committee. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: (541) 689-2000; or PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370.