A view of the Trailblazer from the company warehouse
// Photo by Adam Wickham
The industry began to revive around 2005, says Hal Hockema, a naval architect for Seattle-based Hockema & Whalen Associates. The favorable exchange rate for U.S.-caught fish and the premium on wild salmon made commercial fishing a lucrative occupation once again, as did the strategic fisheries management via federal- and state-set quotas.
“Wahl stayed with it while others dropped out, and now that the market is coming back, he’s in a good position to meet it,” Hockema says. “He’s kind of a last man standing.” Staffed by about 75 employees, Fred Wahl’s shipyard can construct a boat in six to seven months and, unlike most others, fabricates all its own tools from scratch, welding together everything from cranes to anchor winches to shaft couplings.
Wahl’s specialty boat to date is the Arctic Fox, a 58-foot design he developed in 2007 and has replicated a dozen times. The seiner fits the regulatory length limits of Alaskan fisheries but compensates by being as wide and deep as possible.
Commercial fisherman Matt Giambrone, whose 58-foot Magnus Martens is one of the three new boats headed for Alaska this season, says the design squeezes maximum performance out of the length limit. The boat can hold a lot of gear and 200,000 pounds of fish at once, which reduces the number of port trips needed to unload.
“It used to be, to pack that much fish, you’d be looking at a boat that was 80 feet long,” Giambrone says.
To meet a need he predicts will arise in coming years, Wahl recently designed and built a 114-foot stainless steel crabbing vessel called the Victory. His largest boat yet — and hopefully (depending on demand) a prototype for many more to come — the Victory will take on the Bering Sea this summer.
While Wahl’s shipyard is currently busier than ever, Wahl’s son Mike, who started as a purchasing agent when he was 20 and now oversees the yard day-to-day, says he cannot predict what the future will bring. He does know one thing for sure, though: “The good old days are right now,” he says. “We’re rolling through them.”