Newbuild Fishing Boats Focus on Technology, Efficiency

ACI Boats’ latest Bristol Bay build, the f/v Norrin Radd, out on the water. Photo: ACI Boats.

Recent trends for building new commercial fishing boats focus on efficiency, modern technology and new systems for refrigeration, fuel and propulsion.

Fishermen’s News reached out to some West Coast companies to find out what they’re prioritizing when they design a new vessel.

Mike Carr, an engineer/designer with ACI Boats, a builder based out of Port Townsend, Wash., highlighted several areas of focus for his company. Carr has been commercial fishing in Bristol Bay since 2002 and began operating his own boat in 2010.

“When it comes to new technology, one of our main priorities is to sort the wheat from the chaff,” Carr said. “Some technologies can create new capabilities or provide a cost-effective alternative to older technologies, but it is easy to go astray.”

“The wrong decisions can add unnecessary weight, cost and complication that increases down time,” he continued. “It is of the upmost importance when designing and building a new fishing (boat to) never lose sight of the goal of creating a cost-effective, high-efficiency and high-performance new piece of equipment.”

Although fishermen have different ideas about what new capabilities their next boat should have, one thing that every customer seems to agree on is that their new vessel should have more effective refrigeration than their old one, he explained. 

All of the company’s newbuilds for Bristol Bay have a 10-ton refrigerated sea water (RSW) system, whereas the old industry standard was 7.5 tons. Being able to chill the vessel’s 12 fish holds in three isolated zones is another feature that helps with product quality, he noted.

“This is achieved using motorized valves and allows the operator to focus the vessel’s 10 tons of refrigeration capacity where it is needed, rather than waste energy chilling fish holds that are not in use,” Carr said.

“It also allows for the fish to be floated in cold water, to prevent bruising, without requiring every fish hold to have slack water in it,” he added. “This is a safety feature that the older generation of vessels typical doesn’t have.”

 There are several other ways that ACI’s new fishing vessels are safer than older vessels, he added. 

In Bristol Bay, the 32-foot length restriction has been compromising for the industry, Carr said. 

“Some fishermen say that the most dangerous part of fishing in Bristol Bay is unloading. This is usually done by unloading to larger vessels in open water and is often done in bad weather,” Carr said. 

Modern advances in propulsion have made it feasible to build very “beamy” vessels, Carr said. A wider boat allows for more deck space, which makes it more efficient to work the gear and provides room for the crew to stand safely out of the way of the bailer bags—that can weigh up to 1,000 pounds—getting lifted off the vessel by hydraulic crane.

Carr also noted that less than a decade ago, many of the new vessels under construction for Bristol Bay were driven by a single propeller. Now, the vast majority of new builds are propelled by twin waterjets.

“This is the only arrangement that ACI Boats builds for Bristol Bay,” he said. “Twin engines in propeller-driven boats have numerous drawbacks and were not popular in Bristol Bay. Twin waterjets offer far more advantages than disadvantages, and the redundancy of twin engines can now be had without all the compromise.”

Efficiency Options

Although waterjets have been on the market for quite some time, older Bristol Bay jet boats struggled with poor efficiency, Carr pointed out. There are now many more options on the table, including high thrust models and even waterjets that are designed specifically for Bristol Bay.

“The correct waterjets, combined with the latest generation of high-output diesel engines, is giving the new generation of fishing vessels the capability to get on plane with a substantial payload of fish and travel four times faster than would otherwise be possible,” Carr pointed out.

Faster speeds mean less time spent traveling and waiting to unload their fish and more time catching fish, he said. 

“It also makes it possible for the fleet to spread out and cover more ground which helps reduce the crowded ‘combat fishing’ that occurs when hundreds of boats are competing over the same spot,” he added.

A great example that incorporates all of these top priorities for a commercial fishing vessel is ACI’s latest Bristol Bay build, f/v Norrin Radd, a 32-foot gillnetter designed in collaboration with Carr.

According to the company, ACI Boats’ gillnetters are designed to balance ride comfort, efficiency and performance while maintaining a safe and effective work platform. The company’s custom look-up windows in the top house provide 360-degree visibility.

The vessel features ample deck space, galley and berthing area that sleeps five crew, with an additional bunk in the pilot house. The three-station Glendinning controls allow maneuverability from the main station, flybridge and aft deck.

It’s also outfitted with a 10-ton Pacific West Refrigeration RSW system and 12 insulated fish holds with three isolated zones. The design allows the vessel to hold 19,000 pounds under the fish holds and get up on plane with 10,000 pounds.

In a video featuring the Norrin Radd, ACI Boats founder/owner Cory Armstrong said they hit the ground running with twin jet and diesel engines. They’ve stuck to that model, but have made some modifications to the hull with upgrades focused on the beam, tightening up the entry for a softer ride, and flattening the bottom in order to better pack wright.

People also love this design for the durability and low-maintenance, Armstrong said. There’s very little to do other than basic maintenance when they’re stored for winter, he noted.

“They’re a strong, robust product,” he said.

In another recent build, Fred Wahl Marine Construction’s f/v Uyak, is out on the water and doing well.

The 68-foot by 29.5-foot vessel was designed in-house with external engineering support, officials previously said. Fred Wahl Marine focused on updated systems and modern technology in the design.

The new combination crabbing and shrimp vessel is owned by Wahl Fisheries and was delivered in 2023. It traveled to Alaska for crabbing. 

The design is available to be built for sister ships, firm officials have said.

In 2022, Fred Wahl Marine built the latest vessel from its “famous 58” design. The 58-foot by 30-foot f/v Nordic Fox was built to take on the harshest ocean conditions. The stocky boat, which was designed to focus on high capacity and streamlined efficiency, travels between Alaska and Washington for crabbing and salmon fishing.

Retrofits Over Newbuilds

Building activity has focused on smaller vessels, so future trends for newbuilds of large factory trawlers are unclear. There have not been few new such trawlers built in the last decade or so, according to Jim Towers, PE, principal in charge and chief concept engineer for Elliott Bay Design Group, the Seattle-based marine engineering firm.

“It will be great to see new designs being developed, but don’t know when (that will happen),” Towers said.

Of the few that have been built, most recent was the f/v Arctic Fjord.

The new 326-foot factory trawler is the first American-built new vessel for the wild Alaska pollock catcher-processor fleet in more than three decades. 

The vessel was designed by Norway-based Kongsberg Maritime and built by Thoma-Sea Marine Construction in Houma, La. It was delivered to Seattle-based Arctic Storm Management Group in summer 2023 and went to work late last year.

Design of the vessel focused on fuel efficiency, state-of-the-art technology and first-rate crew accommodations. It also features an ammonia-CO2 refrigeration system.

Overall, though, the trend over the last few years has been to retrofit rather than build new, Towers commented.

“There’s been one vessel that just had a major refit and I’m sure that some of the other vessels are going to start seeing major refits, but we’re not hearing plans right now for new construction,” he said.

There are very few shipyards that have actually built a factory trawler in the last 20 years, he added, referencing the Thoma-Sea design and a few from Dakota Creek Industries.

Most recently, DCI delivered the factory fishing vessel America’s Finest for work in Alaskan waters with Fishermen’s Finest. The Amendment 80 replacement vessel was designed specifically for catching and producing frozen-at-sea white fish products and groundfish, including yellow and rock sole species.

The 264-foot trawler joined the fleet in 2019 and was the first Skipsteknisk ST-116XL design to operate in the U.S. 

Part of the reason for the lack of new construction is because it’s very expensive to build a factory trawler in the U.S., Towers explained. Many build their vessels in countries where they can get low-cost labor and materials.

“They get a lot cheaper vessel and they replace them more frequently. In the U.S., we tend to keep the boats a lot longer,” Towers said.

Most of the U.S.-built factory trawlers out there now were either built or converted somewhere between 1988 and 1995, he estimated. However, most of those vessels are at their “mid-life stage” and will get to a point where maintenance costs get higher and more frequent, meaning newbuilds will eventually be required.

For future vessels and those that have been built recently, he commented that alternative fuel will play a big part in design. While he doesn’t know of any alternative fuel vessels built at this time, it’s likely headed in that direction. 

“It’s going to be pretty challenging to do,” Towers said. “It will come, but how soon I don’t know.”

It may not be in the very near future, but work is already being done on liquefied natural gas, ammonia and hydrogen engines. 

“They’ll become available, then the challenge is designing the fuel storage for them,” which is very different than what tends to be used for diesel fuel, he added. 

As far as outside issues influencing the industry, Towers said that automation is becoming more common in factories and changes in refrigerants will likely prompt changes in new vessel builds.

“I expect (that) it will continue to evolve,” he said.  

Sara Hall has 15 years of experience at several regional and national magazines, online news outlets, and daily and weekly newspapers, where coverage has  included reporting on local harbor activities, marine-based news, and regional and state coastal agencies. Her work has included photography, writing, design and layout.