, Gloucester, MA

July 22, 2006

Herring and mackerel fishing firm doesn't stand still

By Peter K. Prybot

Since settling at the Jodrey State Fish Pier in 2001, the Irish and Irish-American Western Sea Fishing Co. has clearly shown it can catch and market herring and mackerel and also run an exemplary business that only continues to improve.

Has the company found the leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or did it create its own success? The company's seven owners, who are mainly from Killybegs, a major fishing port on the southwest coast of Ireland, met in Gloucester this June.

The beginning

"We came together as a group of fishermen in 1980 and formed Western Sea Fishing Co. Inc.," explained Martin Howley, a resident of Killybegs and skipper of the F/V Atlantic Challenge and one of the active or retired captain shareholders. The same men also took ownership of Swan Net International, started by Capt. Albert Swan.

"There was need for both companies," he added.

Shareholder, Gloucester resident and whirlwind worker Gerry O'Neill and much of his family largely run the local operation, which besides Western Sea Fishing and Swan Net also includes close affiliate Cape Seafoods Inc. Swan Net also has other branches throughout the world. Howley, like most of his associates, goes back at least five generations in the herring and mackerel fishery.

"In 1980, much of the European quota for herring and mackerel was underutilized. We saw that as an area that we could develop," said Howley.

Later, the shareholders also felt the same was true for those species off the east coast of North America.

Western Sea Fishing started here around 1997 after purchasing and making midwater trawlers out of the approximately 109-foot-long scallopers Atlantic, Mohawk and Gatherer. The company, along with Swan Net and Cape Seafoods Inc., later settled at the Jodrey State Fish Pier in 2001.

Western Sea Fishing has since followed a new learning curve, especially for the herring.

"The species is the same, but its behavior on both sides of the Atlantic is different," said Howley. "The fish exercise very different shoaling patterns."

Scientists from the U.S.-Canada Transboundary Resource Assessment Committee recently testified at a fisheries council meeting that the herring "stock is healthy and overfishing is not occurring." The same applies to the mackerel stock.

Company holdings, philosophy

Western Sea Fishing owns and operates seven modern midwater pair trawlers.

These include, in Ireland: the Western Endeavour and Atlantic Challenge, each approximately 200 feet long and 3,000 horsepower, and the Camarose and Colomcille, each approximately 130 feet long with 1,800-horsepower main diesels.

And in Gloucester: sister ships Challenger and Endeavour, 149 feet long with 1,400 horsepower apiece and Voyager, 140 feet long with twin main engines producing 2,400 horsepower.

The shareholders continue to follow three business principles: "Do everything as good as can possibly be done; have no fear of trying something new and you have to spend money to make money," Howley said.

The owners have certainly practiced what they preach in Gloucester.

To remedy limited carrying capacities and ranges and safety issues of Mohawk and Gatherer, Western Sea Fishing had Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Florida lengthen, widen and heighten the 109-foot-long by 28-foot-wide trawlers into the 149-foot-long by 34-foot-wide European-design Challenger and Endeavour.

"They're real boats. They are very safe. I've thought of everything on them," said O'Neill at the time of their arrival in Gloucester in 2003. The company also sold the Atlantic along with all three vessels' valuable scalloping permits.

The Irish vessels work "the North Sea to the Bay of Biscay off Ireland. The vessels experience a lot of bad weather there, which is worse than here," Howley said.

The Gloucester boats seasonally work the inshore and offshore waters between the U.S.-Canadian boundary down to the Carolinas.

To further assure a steady supply of fish in 2004, Western Sea Fishing bought a 140-foot-long by 33-foot-wide seismic vessel through an auction in Louisiana and had Boconco Shipyard in Alabama convert it into Voyager, then a single-boat midwater trawler.

"The equipment on that boat is unbelievable," said O'Neill back in 2005.

Most impressive is its pair of main trawl winches, which could then each hold 1,500 fathoms of 11/4-inch-diameter towing wire and pull 40 tons.

Not skimping on maintenance, Western Sea Fishing recently tied up its boats for several months and hired a Rhode Island company to meticulously sandblast and prime where needed and final-coat their exteriors navy blue with buff tops and hand-paint their bow emblems and vessel names. Western Sea Fishing also added bigger gear boxes to the trawlers' main trawl winches for more towing wire capacity and pulling power needed to fish deeper water.

Business improvements

The shareholders have also thought up several creative ways to get a better return for their product, which includes, besides fresh and frozen bait fish, frozen whole herring and mackerel exported to food markets in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

To cut costs and to be able to process and freeze fish on weekends and holidays, the group last winter took over the cold storage and blast freezer from Allied Cold Storage right next to their processing plant at the fish pier.

"The facility has 250 tons of blast-freezing capacity and 4,500 pallet spaces (approximately 9 million pounds) in the cold store freezer," reports Dave Ellenton, vice president of Cape Seafoods Inc.

Fillets and canned fish in the small pelagics fishery generally yield the processor much higher profits than the frozen, whole food fish. The group has already set up filleting machines at Cape Seafoods Inc., with hopes of processing herring this way by fall.

It also established a partnership with Stinson Seafoods, Prospect Harbor, Maine, this year to handle some of its catch for canning and lobster bait. Under this arrangement, two pairs of midwater trawlers - the Challenger and Endeavour and the Voyager and the 110-foot-long Enterprise based out of Cape May, N.J. - will alternately fish and unload their catches to keep a steady supply of fish coming in. One vessel of each will unload in Gloucester while the other will unload in Maine, allowing the boats to take out quickly and get back to sea..

"We're hoping to add value to the product all the time," said Howley.

The shareholders also bought a 4.8-acre plot at the Blackburn Industrial Park to construct a 22,000-square-foot gear building with the goals of better serving the midwater trawl fleet and making doing so easier for their Swan Net workers. The new environmentally friendly building was designed by O'Neill.

It will be "a one-stop gear shop that will carry everything from netting to trawl wire and will service all fisheries in Canada and along the U.S. east and west coasts (in addition to midwater trawling)," O'Neill said. "We will manufacture complete nets and cod ends and also repair nets there."

The new building will have enough room for workers to stretch out one of the huge midwater trawls and work on it inside. At the pier, the workers often had to stretch out a torn net in a parking lot and work on it under all weather conditions. Swan Net is working out of a rented space in Ipswich until the new building is finished.

Right now shareholder and gear specialist John Bach is skippering the Voyager to also test out more efficient and bycatch-friendly fishing gear.

Last summer, after a haddock bycatch problem on Georges Bank, Swan Net set up and financed a gear workshop and tank-tested experimental, more bycatch-friendly trawls at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland.

The owners are willing to work with the system to solve rising problems in their fishery. The owners also know the regulatory system and their strong, united voice isn't taken lightly.

"We have already made a big commitment to Gloucester," said Howley. "We're here to stay. The resource is here. It's a matter of someone harvesting it to the benefit of the community and the country."