US’ most valuable fishing port seeks $15m grant, wants to get bigger

By  Oct. 16, 2017 16:52 BST

Ed Anthes-Washburn wants to make what is already the United States’ most valuable commercial fishing port even larger.

For the second consecutive year the director of the Port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, has submitted an application for a grant from the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program to add 600-feet of bulkhead and dredge areas that are now unusable at only three- to four-feet deep.

The changes, which would increase depths in those areas to 18- to 30-feet, would grow the number of berthing areas, allowing the port to expand from about 300 fishing vessels to more than 360. It would invite fishing companies that currently operate outside of New Bedford to make it their new base of operation or to simply offload there, and harvesters already using the port could overcome some frustrations and even grow their fleets, Anthes-Washburn told Undercurrent News.

“There are a minimum of three boats [rafted next to each other] at every dock, and in some cases there are five,” Michael Quinn, operations manager for Quinn Fisheries, said of the crowded situation in New Bedford. “When you have to climb across five boats, it takes all day to get [a boat] out.”

Quinn believes his family’s scallop fishing operation, which keeps six vessels at the port, would benefit by as much as $160,000 per year by the reduced costs and added efficiencies and revenue that could be created.

Having expanded dock space would allow Quinn Fisheries and others to bring in mobile cranes to load and unload, he said. Excess dock space also could be rented to a number of other vessel owners who are clamoring to get in.

Additionally, the changes – which also would include the expansion of roadways and connections to rail lines — would eliminate congestion and allow for direct vessel to truck and rail transfers of fresh seafood, Anthes-Washburn said.

‘It’s like getting into Harvard’

The Port of New Bedford is seeking $15 million from TIGER, which it is prepared to match with funds from the state. The deadline for applications was Monday, and Anthes-Washburn knows DOT has a pile of them.

Last year DOT chose only 40 of the 585 TIGER grant applications it received.

“It’s a very competitive process,” Anthes-Washburn said of the TIGER grant contest, comparing the chances to a graduating high school student being accepted by an elite university known to all Massachusetts residents.

“It’s like getting into Harvard,” he said.

The TIGER program has awarded $5.1 billion for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure since it was created in 2009 by one of several anti-recession stimulus packages, according to DOT. Congress has made $500m available for such grants in the 2017 fiscal budget, on par with last year’s awards and close to the amount typically set aside.

The US Senate included the money in the $1 trillion omnibus funding bill it approved by a 79-18 vote back in May. The US House earlier had passed the bill by a 309-118 vote.

President Donald Trump has made a point of calling for spending more on infrastructure and, upon passage, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York) praised the funding continuation, saying TIGER was a “vital” program “that has done so much for infrastructure, road building, and highways throughout my state and throughout America.”

“[T]he dearest place to live”

To say New Bedford is a storied fishing port is an understatement.

The city now populated by 95,000 souls registered on the US fishing map way back in 1767 when it launched the colonies’ first whaling vessel, the Dartmouth. By 1847 New Bedford was the United States’ preeminent whaling port and, not longer after, it helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. The boulevard that trucks use to haul fish from the port bears the author’s name.

“The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England,” wrote Melville in his famous tale.

But today sea scallops are the name of the game in New Bedford, not whales, accounting for roughly 80% of the $322m worth of seafood (140m pounds) that came into the port in 2015, according to the most recently available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the height of the season, 500,000 lbs of scallop meat will cross the docks in a single day, the city brags.

By contrast, the nation’s second-most valuable fishing port is Dutch Harbor, in Alaska, according to NOAA data. It accounted for 514m lbs of landings in 2015 — more than New Bedford – but its haul was worth far less, $218m.

Groundfish, which include cod and haddock among 19 different species, traditionally have been big, too, in New Bedford. But thanks to restrictions intended to preserve cod, in particular, these species now account for only 7% of the landings value. The port also brings in its share of lobster, Jonah crab and surf clams, Anthes-Washburn is quick to note.

And none of that counts the estimated 250mlbs of imported seafood handled by the roughly 39 processors and wholesalers in the city, including scallop giants Eastern Fisheries, which employs 250 there and keeps about 25 vessels at the port.

The other big fleet owners, according to Anthes Washburn: Oceans Fleet Fisheries berths about 22 vessels in New Bedford, including both scalloping and lobster boats; Atlantic Red Crab has six boats; Sea Watch International has five clammers; and Blue Harvest Fisheries has 15 scallopers and other boats.

Combined, the port is credited for creating 36,578 jobs in the area, including 6,225 directly employed at the port. The port itself, which maintains a budget of $2.3m, employs just 23, including 10 seasonal workers, according to Anthes-Washburn.

Though another 60 vessels would add 7m lbs of additional landings every year and 898 new and permanent jobs to that overall picture, according to an economic impact study performed for the city in 2016. It would generate $65.1m in annual wages and local consumption, spurring private investment and economic development.

The selection criteria remain fundamentally the same as previous rounds of the TIGER grants program, DOT has advised. Also, as before, each grant must be at least $5m and no greater than $25m, but available through September 2020. No state can receive more than $50m of TIGER money in any given year.

But the description of each criterion has been updated by the administration. The agency said this year that “special consideration” is to be given to projects that, among other things “promote regional connectivity, or facilitate economic growth or competitiveness.”

It’s something New Bedford’s application promises to deliver in spades.

 ‘[G]oing about their business’

New Bedford could use a lift following the recent scandal surrounding its biggest fishing operation.

Carlos Rafael, the so-called Codfather of New England fishing, pleaded guilty in March to deliberating misreporting more than 815,000 lbs of fish over a four-year period.

He was sentenced in late September to serve 46 months in prison and is in the midst of trying to sell his business, which includes a combined fleet of 42 vessels, to the owners of a local fishing auction for $93m.

Rafael is a major scallop harvester and his boats are estimated to account for 75% of the area’s groundfish by value.

The case has been a bothersome distraction for the port but, for the most part, New Bedford’s fishermen “are going about their business,” Anthes-Washburn said.

“There are still big questions that have to be answered,” he said. “There are people who didn’t do anything wrong and we want to make sure they don’t get wrapped up into this. It remains to be seen what happens with the permits, including the ones that weren’t implicated in anything. So, it’s a wait and see.”

It’s not the first time the Port of New Bedford has dealt with adversity.

In late August 1954, Hurricane Carol hit the city with waves of more than 14 feet, destroying more than 4,000 homes, 3,500 automobiles and 3,000 boats across Southern New England, according to the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. It was the costliest natural disaster in US history before Hurricane Diane hit North Carolina the following year.

During a trip with Undercurrent around the New Bedford Harbor in his patrol boat, a Boston Whaler, Anthes-Washburn pointed to the large hurricane protection barrier built in 1966 at a cost of nearly $19m, it was a response to the damage caused by Carol and continues to offer much comfort to the community.

Another problem the harbor has had to contend with in recent times is the tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that were dumped in the water by local manufacturers between the 1930s and 1970s. In 1998, the harbor was designated a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency, giving it the ability to dredge to remove contaminated material.

Much of the cleanup work is done. But winning the TIGER grant would allow the port to finish a final phase of this job, removing an estimated 250,000 cubic yards of PCB and heavy-metal impacted sediment that are outside EPA’s purview, Washburn said.

Once completed, private waterfront businesses would be able to “complete routine maintenance dredging of clean material on their own in a simple and affordable way,” he said.

A different political climate

It’s not unusual for ports to win DOT TIGER grants. In 2015, the US ports of Baltimore (Maryland), Newport (Virginia), Indiana (Indiana), Hueneme (California) and San Diego (California) received a combined $44.3m to boost infrastructure, roughly 9% of the total funding that year.

Four of last year’s winners also received money to fix up ports, including the Port of Everett, in Washington state, which was granted $10m to help it strengthen more than 500 feet of dock and create “a modern berth area,” according to a DOT recap of the awards.

A $5m TIGER grant given to the International Maine Terminal, in Portland, in 2009, allowed it to attract the North American headquarters of Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping company, and was the tipping point needed to attract another $45m in funds, as chronicled in a video by the American State Highways and Transportation Officials.

As for its TIGER grant application, New Bedford hopes to get a good word in Washington this time from several top lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Rep. Bill Keating, who presides over the 9th district that includes New Bedford.

Keating has confirmed his support of the program, telling Undercurrent in an email:  “The great economic advantages that would come from this new infrastructure will translate into jobs, community revitalization, local economic benefits, and a larger, reinvigorated fishing industry.”

Mark Montigny, the Democratic lawmaker who represents New Bedford in the Massachusetts Senate, wrote Transportation secretary Elaine Chao last week to ask for her support. He’s worked to secure more than $60m in state funding authorizations to help with the project, much of which is contingent on federal assistance, he noted.

Jon Mitchell, New Bedford’s mayor since 2012, can also be expected to fight for the grant. Born into a fishing family, his grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, is among the names of fishermen lost at sea inscribed at the Seaman’s Bethel, the church used as a model in Melville’s book.

“To this city, seafood is the biggest industry. This is the center of the commercial fishing industry on the East Coast,” Mitchell told Undercurrent during a visit to his office.

The political climate on Capitol Hill is a bit different than it was a year ago, as purse strings continue to tighten and the Trump administration seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, Anthes-Washburn observed. His new application, as a result, puts more emphasis on public private partnerships, he said.

TIGER grants have historically achieved an average co-investment of 3.6 dollars for every federal dollar spent, DOT observes on its website.

Quinn, for one, is hopeful.

“We’re the number one fishing port in the country,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to worry about dock space.”

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com

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