Rebuild or Replace? Prospects for Modernizing the Bering Sea Groundfish Fleets

By Steve Johnson

The Bering Sea groundfish fleets have been largely frozen in place for the past 20 years by the limited entry schemes imposed on the groundfish fisheries. But that’s about to change.

Recent federal legislation has freed pollock catcher/processors, catcher boats and motherships from the restrictions on vessel rebuilding and replacement previously imposed by the American Fisheries Act and the North Pacific Council’s license limitation program. Proposals by the H&G mixed species trawl fleet and Pacific cod freezer longline fleet for similar relief are pending.

A flood of vessels entered the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries in the 1980s and early1990s as vessel owners rushed to get in on the ground floor of the rapidly Americanizing Bering Sea groundfish fisheries. In the rush to put operating capacity on the water, many vessels were converted from other uses – crab boats, oil supply vessels, salmon tenders, navy vessels, even a container ship – anything that provided a hull, a propulsion system and a platform that could be adapted, more or less, to the new use. Many compromises were made with efficiency and safety in making these conversions.

Even for vessels built new for these fisheries 20 years ago, changes in products and product forms, technologies and regulations – not to mention the price of fuel – now force vessel owners to ask whether increased efficiencies might justify the rebuilding or replacing of their vessels.

The American Fisheries Act limited the right to participate in the Bering Sea pollock fishery to vessels named in the Act. A named vessel could only be replaced if it suffered a total loss. Further, the AFA prohibited any vessel greater than 165 feet in length, of more than 750 gross tons or with engines capable of generating more than 3,000 shaft horsepower from entering any US fishery unless specifically recommended by the relevant fishery management council and approved by NMFS. These restrictions made it impossible to replace an AFA pollock vessel prior to enactment of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010.

Beyond the AFA, the North Pacific Council’s LLP license program prohibits the rebuilding or replacement of any groundfish vessel so as to increase its length beyond the “maximum length overall (MLOA)” specified on the vessel’s LLP license – a limitation based on the length of the original qualifying vessel. The LLP license program has effectively prohibited the rebuilding or replacement of a vessel to increase its size.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 eliminated the AFA’s restrictions on the replacement of AFA pollock vessels and also expressly overrode the restrictions of the LLP license program for pollock vessels. AFA pollock vessels may now be rebuilt or replaced without limitation as to length, tonnage or horsepower.

The H&G trawl and the freezer longline fleets have also made proposals to the North Pacific Council to relax the LLP license restrictions on the rebuilding or replacement of their vessels. At its June 2010 meeting, the North Pacific Council adopted the H&G trawl fleet’s proposal to permit vessels of that fleet to be rebuilt or replaced by vessels up to 295 feet in length, regardless of the size of the vessel being rebuilt or replaced. In February 2011, the Freezer Longline Coalition submitted its own proposal for relaxation of the LLP license length restrictions on rebuilt or replacement vessels in their fleet.

The freeze on the rebuilding and replacement of Bering Sea groundfish vessels is on its way out – and good riddance! Vessel owners need the flexibility to maximize the efficiency and safety on their vessels without regulatory impediments.

Steve Johnson, an attorney with the Seattle law firm Garvey Schubert Barer,
will be presenting a paper at the Bering Sea Fisheries Conference: Building
the Next Generation of Bering Sea Vessels ( on
April 21, from 9:00am to 5:00pm at the Red Lion Hotel, Fifth Avenue,
Seattle, WA. Mr. Johnson has represented participants in the Bering Sea
groundfish fisheries for more than 30 years. He can be reached at