The 125-foot crab vessel F/V Kiska Sea has returned to the snow crab grounds along the Russian border after a successful haul out at the Port of Toledo, Oregon. The haul out was the first of its kind for the Kiska Sea at the location.
“The Port of Toledo was very accommodating,” vessel Capt. Mike Wilson from the helm via satellite phone. “They were good people.”
Wilson has skippered the Kiska Sea since it launched in 1990 and was involved with design of the vessel when it was built, namely the functional elements of the deck layout. He began his fishing career when he was 17 in a Kodiak cannery.
“Then I got a deck job and slowly worked my way to the wheelhouse,” he told Fishermen’s News. I’ve been skippering for close to 40 years now.”
Owned by Seattle-based Aleutian Spray Fisheries, the Kiska Sea targets red crab in Bristol Bay and snow and king crab in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. The vessel has a 34-foot beam with twin screws and 345,000 pounds of catch capacity. The primary naval architect was Mark Babcock and the vessel was built at Mid-Coast Marine in Coos Bay, Oregon.
The vessel was built to hold a specific size of crab pot that locks by the shelter decks in a full row across for security. Another crabbing-focused feature is the schooner-style wheelhouse vs. a house-forward design.
“If you’re going to crab fish, then it makes sense to see everything in front of you,” Wilson explained. “In a house forward boat, you’re always looking in a camera or behind you, so we prefer the schooner style for crabbing.”
The hull of the Kiska Sea is extra thick for ice operations.
“We don’t like to fish in the ice, but we don’t run from it either,” Wilson said. “Unless of course there’s a point where you just cannot work in it. I’ve been in that spot a few times. When it comes with big ice, you’re digging your pots out trying to save your gear.”
The vessel returns to Oregon every year at the end of crab season with shipyard work starting after the 4th of July. The Port of Toledo is about 13 miles up the Yaquina River and provides services for the regional and distant waters fishing fleets, research vessels, and recreational boats.
“A little over a decade ago, the Port of Toledo acquired the shipyard and built it out to include a 660-ton lift and a brand-new environmental work building,” Port Manager Lorna Davis explained. “We increased our workforce from three to about thirty over the course of that decade.”
After the last two negatively impactful years of COVID-19, the port is seeing a return of business from differed maintenance and new clients.
“We hope there are more fruitful years ahead,” Davis said. The port has active ties with 40 marine trade vendors that provide services at the shipyard alongside their crew of 30.
“This was the first time we hauled out the F/V Kiska Sea,” Shipyard Superintendent Ben Victorine said. The vessel was the largest the port has hauled to date.
“I was nervous,” Wilson admitted. “Our fear was the pier.”
The pier is designed for an 800-ton maximum capacity. The Kiska Sea was weighed at 478.7 tons.
“I thought we’d be 500 tons,” Wilson said. We got 220-ton weight for the travel lift. So, if I’m at 500 tons and they got 220 tons, that’s 720 tons. Well, we know how designs work. Sometimes they’re flawed. If that pier were to collapse and sink, we’d have quite a problem.”
After confirming that the port’s liability insurance was adequate in case of a worst-case scenario, they made a go decision.
“Every boat is different,” Victorine explained. The Kiska Sea has rolling chalks on the sides and expensive below-waterline electronic equipment like transducers. “We didn’t want to lift on any of those and potentially damage them. It’s figuring out the strap configuration where we can safely lift the boat without doing damage to any electronic equipment or other parts of the boat, rolling chalks and rudder shoes and that kind of thing.”
Ultimately, the port hired a local mill to cut custom wood blocking to position behind the rolling chalks. That way, the rolling chalks wouldn’t take the full load of the boat when in the straps. These wood blocks were secured by a diver and the lift performed flawlessly.
The next obstacle was getting the Kiska Sea into the environmental building and off the lift. The forward mast made backing the lift out a very tight squeeze.
“There was a crossbar across the front of the lift in conflict with all his sodium lights on that forward mast,” Victorine said. “We had to take those off and hang them so I could drive the lift back off the boat for clearance under the crossbar of the front of the lift.”
“It worked out in the end,” Wilson chuckled. “I was laying in the mast when they were backing out the carriage after putting us in the building. It was one knuckle from the first digit on the first finger of my left hand from the top of the mast to the bottom of their bar. We had one knuckle.”
“Everything went smoothly,” Victorine added. “Our pre-planning and measuring paid off.”
The shipyard work was mostly bottom related. Insurance stipulations for the Kiska Sea demanded a haul out every four years—annually if ice operations took place. Ice rubs off bottom paint and often bends propellor blades, the most vulnerable point in the system.
For the first time in the Kiska Sea’s history, a sandblasting of the interior of the work area was in order.
“The actual inside of the work area had never sand blasted in 31 years,” Wilson said. “It was time to take all hydraulics off, take all the electrical off, cut the tie rails off, fuel mains off, and sandblast it. Bow, both shelters, main work area, the main deck … we got it all sandblasted and painted up and then put all new stainless steel fuel bands in, stainless tie rails, new hydraulic lines, and new electrical to the lights.”
“Paint never caught any crab, but good equipment will catch the crab,” Wilson said. “The paint on the inside of the boat, we just never got around to it. For years and years, we’ve painted it, but we didn’t do a full-on sandblast. We did needle gun and primer, and after 30 years of painting, it got awful thick. We just needed to strip it down and start all over.”
“The Port of Toledo was very accommodating to our project in letting crew help where we could,” Wilson said. “I believe we used like 380,000 pounds of sand to do the sand blasting. Our crew did pretty much all the sand shoveling and cleanup.”
“A lot of careful thought and consideration went into executing that haul out,” Davis said. “Our crew did an outstanding job in determining the logistics so it went smoothly, thankfully.”
Now fresh off the Port of Toledo haul out, the Kiska Sea faces a challenging snow crab season. At the time of this writing in late January, the Kiska Sea was about 60 nautical miles from their fishing grounds; south of St. Lawrence Island, west of St. Mathew Island and 90 miles from Russia.
“Our snow crab quotas have gone down to an all-time low,” Wilson explained from the helm. “Something is going on in the Bering Sea. Our catch quota went from 1.5 million to 200,000 this year. The crab seem to be further north than normal up to the Russian border and that’s where we have to go catch them. We don’t know what happened. Two, three years ago, there were crab all down by the Pribilof Islands and they disappeared.”
“Our future in the fishing business for the king crab and snow crab looks pretty bleak,” Wilson continued. “We had no king crab season this year, which is the first closure since, I believe, back in the early 1990s. We might’ve had a closure for a couple years in there somewhere. But something changed in the Bering Sea and we’re not quite sure what.”
But Wilson and his longtime crew are making the best of it.
“That’s the business,” he said. “We have our cycles, you have your ups and you have your downs. We’re going to be in a downturn for a while. You just got to hope things turn around and come back.”
Regardless of the season’s fate, the work done at the Port of Toledo has the Kiska Sea in good form.
“If you take care of your boat, it’ll take care of you,” Wilson said. “If you neglect it, it’ll neglect you. That’s why we take it home and keep it in tiptop shape.”