Study: Bellingham, Blaine commercial fishing fleet plays big part in local economy

While Whatcom County’s economy has diversified in the past two decades, commercial fishing remains a significant contributor of jobs and revenue.

That’s the conclusion of a newly released economic impact study that looked at commercial fishing and seafood processing activity in the Blaine and Squalicum marinas in 2013.

According to the study, the industry employed 1,781 people, creating 870 jobs through spending money at other businesses, and another indirect 165 jobs. Those 1,781 people earned $94.5 million in 2013, according to the report.

The study was put together by the research firm Martin Associates, which was hired by the Port of Bellingham.

The job total is comparable to the Cherry Point industrial area, which employs about 2,200 people, and to Western Washington University, which employs about 1,500, according to data from WWU’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

Despite the recession and the global financial meltdown in recent years, the local commercial fishing fleet didn’t slow down, partly because of stronger fish runs, said Jim Kyle, a commercial fisherman who is president of the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County.

“Commercial fishing has remained a stable industry that’s been a little busier in the past 10 years,” he said.

Dan Stahl agreed with Kyle. As maritime director at the Port of Bellingham, he has noticed an uptick in the number of vessels in the fleet, something he attributes to a healthier fishery.

“It’s a core constituency for the port and it’s something we need to pay attention to because of the jobs they create,” Stahl said.

It’s also an industry that brings in revenue from other areas, said Milan Slipcevic, president of Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

“Much of the seafood local fishers harvest in the Salish Sea is processed in Whatcom County. We also work in waters of Oregon, California and especially Alaska, and most of the proceeds from those fisheries are spent right here,” Slipcevic said in a news release accompanying the data.

One part of the study looked specifically at the local commercial fishing fleet. According to the study, 312 fishing vessels moored at the Blaine and Squalicum marinas in 2013, with 150 of those considered transient vessels. Transient vessels are boats that come in to get worked on or want to be in the area for nearby fishing runs.

Of the 162 vessels that consider Blaine and Squalicum home port, the most common type of boat is the gillnet (74 vessels), followed by the purse seiner (42) and crab boats (20).

The expectation is that the local commercial fleet will be busy in 2015, Kyle said. The pink salmon run is expected to be big, and while Dungeness crab is expected to be down in quantity, the price will be high.

What’s unclear is what impact warmer local waters will have, if any, on the pink salmon run. Last year, most of the Fraser River sockeye salmon went north around the top of Vancouver Island into Canadian waters, leaving few fish for U.S. fishermen.

A more extensive study about the entire local commercial fishing fleet (not just the ones moored at Blaine and Squalicum marinas) is currently being done by WWU’s Center for Economic and Business Research and is expected to be completed in the coming months, said Director Hart Hodges.

The current study is available online at; click the “current projects” link at the bottom of the page.