It was 1913 when the Port of Seattle broke ground and began building its first property: Fishermen’s Terminal. Maritime was active in the area before, but on Jan. 10, 1914, the Port of Seattle officially dedicated the facility.
The terminal expanded in 1939, and more expansions continued into the 1950s.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing: In the 1980s, the terminal hit hard times financially, and to this day has a budget in the red. As the years have come and gone, so have the boats and fishermen. Some spend their entire lives here, while others are newcomers, trying to keep the terminal contemporary, thriving and alive.
One person trying to keep it that way is business and operations manager Ray Giometti.
The terminal has about 350 boats lining its eight different docks at any given time. Some are small recreational boats that zip around for an evening sunset cruise; others are 250-foot metal monsters that brave months of the harshest conditions for the freshest fish.
“I have the opposite problem of every marina operator in the whole country,” Giometti says. “Usually...when the sun comes out, you have tons of boats — everybody is your friend. My guys all go to Alaska.”
Until 2002, recreational boats weren’t allowed to dock in the terminal: Fishermen have been and are the preferred customer. But to pull in more money during the summer — when the docks are empty and the fishermen are at sea — the terminal has started renting out docks to recreational boats.
“The same activities occur here today, 100 years later, that occurred when this place began,” says Paula Cassidy, president of the Fishermen’s Terminal Tenants Association.
“I would rather be an enemy in a sub than a fish,” Giometti said.
Giometti knows that fishermen like Robert Knowles are extremely successful. In September, Knowles returned from another season aboard the Grant, a wooden longliner that fishes the Gulf of Alaska for halibut and black cod.
For the last 23 years, Knowles, 52, has spent five months a year at sea. The Grant’s six-man crew spent 170 days working over the summer, with only two 10-day breaks. The boat is allotted 350,000 pounds of fish for the season.
“It’s a great office,” Knowles says. “And it provides a good living with a lot of time off so you can dedicate it to the family.”
New technology has made things easier. With radar and depth charts, the crew is able to know where they are and where the fish are. Weather reports come through quickly, so they can prepare for storms.
As technology has changed, so have the regulations. “It used to be a fishing derby,” Knowles says. The Grant gets a certain chunk of the fish pie. This cuts out black markets, creates a better price for the fish and a safer industry, he says.
Gary Coles began coming to the terminal when he was 4. His dad was a commercial fishermen, and his great-uncle was a fishermen before that. His boat, the Jayne C, is a 58-footer that, manned by a crew of four, fishes for everything from crab and salmon to shrimp. “Anything I can get” between Seattle and Alaska, he says.
“The industry in this state is horrible,” he said. “Politics [have] ruined the commercial fishing industry. Your chances of making money in this are almost like winning the lottery.”
Fishing doesn’t get the same respect as technology or aerospace in Seattle, Giometti says, but it has an important economic impact and a lot of blue-collar jobs.
“Sometimes it feels, Seattle is so large, that there’s people that aren’t connected to Fishermen’s Terminal,” Giometti says. “But fishing was one of the first things Seattle was built on, and we have to stay. Fishing boats mean jobs.”
Giometti is a government employee who needs to worry about customer service, and he likes that. He’d rather walk up and down the docks talking to the fishermen than sit in his office.
When he first came here, there was a distrust of the government employees among the fishermen.
“I think we’ve done a good job of addressing that,” he said. “And it is because I’m not shy about saying, ‘Hey, we work for fishermen.’”
Even in the winter, when the fishermen have all returned from the ocean and battened down their hatches, Fishermen’s Terminal still has life.
“[The fishermen] go and they work for 90 or 100 days,” Giometti says. “So a lot of them come back and park the boat and don’t look at it for a month. But they’ll be back.”
And they do come back, slowly at first, working three days a week to prepare their boats for the next season.
The fishermen are not the only businessmen at the terminal. In the “uplands” buildings, there are office spaces, insurance companies, a grocery store, a sign shop, a heating and air-conditioning shop, a fish market and a barbershop.
Paula Cassidy owns the Wild Salmon Seafood Market. She gets her fish from fishermen who moor their boats at the terminal. A fisherman will call her when he is at sea and let her know how the fishing is. The next morning, she drives to Sea-Tac International Airport and picks up the fish, while her supplier is still plucking his catch from the ocean.
“It feels like a family,” Cassidy says. “I know all of my fellow business owners.”
“The port is working very hard to make this an active terminal and not a museum,” Giometti says.
The terminal is 100 years old. Maintenance and repairs are expensive. Parts of the parking lot are on old piles that are sinking.
A 2008 study estimated the commercial fishing industry brought in $148.3 million in individual income and 3,520 jobs. A 2011 follow-up study commissioned by the Seattle Marine Business Coalition estimated the industry at $3.9 billion, saying the first report left out commercial tribal fisheries, offshore fisheries, aquaculture and Alaska fisheries contributions to Washington state.
Fishermen’s Terminal is subsidized, and for a long time, it’s been in the red; now, it has a directive from the Port of Seattle to break even. At this point, it has hit the market price for moorage, and Giometti doesn’t plan to raise it any more. Instead, in the upcoming 25-year plan for the terminal, it may look at upgrades to the uplands to draw more businesses there.
“The risk that Fishermen’s Terminal faces is the risk that our government [faces],” Giometti says. “There’s a shrinking amount of money, and we have to stay. For Fishermen’s Terminal, we have to continue to try to show that we have economic impact.”
The Port of Seattle will have anniversary events throughout 2014. The first will take place Friday, Jan. 10, from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Nordy Conference Center at Fishermen’s Terminal (3919 18th Ave. W.).
The event is mainly for customers but is open to the public.
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