Fishing With an Open Mind — and Narrower Boats
Suzanne Altenburger is the woman with the German accent and a formidable, intimidating gaze who has been a fixture at public meetings regarding fishery management in New England for close to two decades. If you have spoken with her even briefly, you know that she has been on a quest to update the design of commercial fishing vessels in New England (and elsewhere) for close to two decades.
Her idea is a simple one. Building on the work of her late husband, boat designer Phil Bolger, who died in 2008, Altenburger wants fishermen in New England to fish in narrower, shallower and longer boats than those currently used in the fleet. Such boats, she argues, will require smaller engines and less fuel to navigate through the ocean than the relatively wider boats currently in use in New England’s groundfish fleet. The result would be a more sustainable and more lucrative fishery.
Some people might grimace at the word “sustainable,” with good reason. Many — but not all — environmentalists don’t like people very much and yet at the same time, want very much to be able to tell them what to do — all in the name of “sustainability.” Some folks use the exaggerated threat of an environmental apocalypse and the false promise of an ecological utopia to justify their authoritarianism impulse.
But this doesn’t describe Altenburger, nor does it describe her late husband. Both she and her husband sincerely wanted to help people who work on the water. “The only way to make a living in the fishing industry in the long run is to reduce your costs and one of the easiest ways to do that is to reduce the amount of fuel and the size of your engine,” she says.
The first time I spoke at length with Suzanne Altenburger was in 2004 when the boats and equipment editor for NF called me and asked me to do a story about her and her husband Phil Bolger, a renown naval architect who proposed that fishermen go to sea in narrow, shallow-draft boats in hulls comprised of a composite of plywood, foam and fiberglass, and driven by electric engines powered with banks of batteries that doubled as ballast for the boats. The design included retractable center boards to keep the boat from drifting.
It sounded crazy at the time, but the problem was that Bolger was well regarded as a naval architect even if his designs were, at first glance, crazy. In addition to designing the boat used to portray the HMS Surprise in the Russel Crowe film “Master and Commander,” Bolger and Altenburger worked with the U.S. Navy in their efforts to create a fold-up landing craft to augment the current fleet of amphibious landing vehicles. The LCU-F vessel would open like a jack-knife to unload equipment, with its stern facing the beach. Five years after Bolger’s death, Proceedings, a magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute, promoted the idea in an article coauthored by two high ranking naval officers.
Tom Nies, a former skipper of a Coast Guard cutter (and who now serves as Executive Director of the New England Fishery Management Council) was another one of his fans.
“He’s got some pretty unique boat designs that have proven pretty effective in other venues,” Nies said in 2004. “He’s pretty well respected.”
The main thrust of Altenburger and Bolger’s message was that boat and construction in New England’s fishing industry had gone in the wrong direction and as a result, vessels had become too expensive to build and operate.
“We think you can do more with less,” Altenburger said in 2004.
“Larger boats cannot pay their way,” Bolger said.
Eventually, Bolger and Altenburger backed off from promoting electric propulsion for use in the fishing industry because of the substantial extra initial cost, limited range, and a lack of robust charging networks in each port. These days Altenburger envisions a day when the fleet is driven by advanced diesel-engines, hybrid-geometries to temporarily offer extra power when needed and other emerging carbon propulsion-systems.
Nevertheless, Altenburger remains committed to the duo’s main argument — that fishing boats in New England were becoming obese and that the high cost of building and operating these boats was forcing boat owners to fight against inevitable lower fishing quotas even when they were necessary. Narrower boats with a shallow draft were the way to go because they would meet with less resistance as they went through the water. It is a simple matter of physics.
“Think about the hundreds of square feet [of boat] you have to push through the water,” Altenburger said at the time. “You should consider how much fuel is required to make her run.”
Boats in New England groundfishery currently vary in length and width, but a representative boat would be approximately 45 feet long and 18 to 20 feet wide, given them a length-to-beam ratio of about 2.2 to one. Pushing a vessel this wide through the water requires a much more substantial amount of energy than the boat she envisions which would be 70 feet long, 14 feet wide and have a draft of about three feet. Some fishermen have gotten on board with the idea of using narrower boats, but others have argued that the narrower boats would be uncomfortable and unsafe to work on.
“Some people today would argue these things would be ‘suicide devices,” Altenburger says wryly.
Altenburger says what they do not know is that an entire generation of New England fisherman worked on long narrow boats in the 1900s without any problem. The boats in question were wooden sub-chasers built and used by the U.S. Navy in World War I. These sleek boats, which were 110 feet in length and 14’ 9” wide were seven times as long as they were wide, giving them a “length-to-beam ratio” of seven to one.
The U.S. Navy constructed approximately 300 of these vessels for its use during the war, and the French Navy had another 100 built and about 60 of these boats were converted for use in commercial fishing between the Canadian border and Virginia. The boats were able to traverse the Atlantic Ocean during World War I without difficulty and dozens of them ended up being used to harvest fishi during the last century.
“Local fishermen actually bought these boats and they were fishing into the early 1970s,” Altenburger says adding that they were operated with an Eastern Rig, meaning that the net was hauled in over the side, not the stern, despite how narrow they were.
“They went fishing in these things for many years,” Altenburger says. “These boats served the needs of many deckhands, owners and fishing families.”
In the design Altenburger envisions, she would back off from the 7:1 length to width ratio of the converted subchasers to about a 5:1 ratio. Her hull design would have a squarer midsection than the one used on the subchasers to make it more stable to work on.
“I want to get clear is that with a narrow boat, your diesel costs are going to go down,” she said, adding that with increased fuel costs in the offing as a result of carbon taxes intended bring about a carbon neutral economy, such innovation will be necessary for people to stay in business. Boat owners might be able to write off diesel costs as a business expense, but in the long run, failing to reduce these costs will make the business less resilient.
There has been significant innovation in the design of planes, trains and automobiles over the past few decades, Altenburger says, but not in the design of fishing boats, where the technology has been stuck since the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“In late 2021, we are coming up on around 30 years of stagnation induced by regulation,” she says.
One obstacle to innovation is government regulations regarding the size of boats in the New England groundfishery. Current regulations used to limit the fishing power in New England’s groundfish fishery make it nearly impossible to introduce new boat designs into the industry. Currently, if you fish in the New England’s groundfishery, which targets more than a dozen species of fish including cod and haddock, you need a permit. And these days, permits are harder to come by than boats.
Under the permit system introduced into the fishery in the 1980s, and modified numerous times since, regulators documented the length, horsepower and “registered tonnage” of the boats in question. Boat owners who wanted to introduce a new vessel into the fishery needed a permit that was attached to a pre-existing boat. No new boat introduced into the fishery could be longer or have a higher registered tonnage than the vessel it replaced. A boat owner could do a one-time increase in the horsepower of the vessel of the boat by 20 percent, but otherwise, he was required to work within the length and tonnage of the boat that first got the permit.
And it is this restriction on the length that has made it impossible to change the shape of fishing boats in New England’s fishery. There just aren’t that many permits for 70-foot boats available in New England’s groundfishery. Back in 2004, Dave Marciano, a fisherman who these days is best known for his stardom on Wicked Tuna, told me “With this permit deal, you’ve to buy a $300,000 permit just to fit the length.”
“Seventy-foot permits are expensive,” Nies said in 2004. “That is a problem that might take a regulatory solution.”
When a limited entry system capping the number of boats in the fisher way imposed in the mid-1990s, it was accompanied by limits on how many days at sea a boat could spent fishing. When the New England Fishery Management Council limited the amount of time on the water to restrict harvest, it also had to impose restrictions on the boats in the fleet. Without such restrictions, it was feared, boat owners could undermine the fishing reductions achieved by limiting the time on the water by building bigger, more powerful boats.
These days, the New England groundfish fleet is regulated by quotas that directly limit the amount of fish a boat can land, making the size restrictions unnecessary and even dangerous by encouraging boat owners to keep older boats on the water. With direct limits on the amount of fish a boat can land, there’s a huge incentive to introduce design innovations that could reduce the cost of operations but to allow for these innovations would require an updating of the length, horsepower and tonnage regulations have been in place since the early 1990s.
The way Altenburger envisions it, the fishing capacity of a boat, if that were needed, should be regulated with limits on horsepower and the actual measured weight of the boat in question. She would dispense with the language regarding “registered tonnage” which was usually an estimate based on the estimated volume of the boat. A boat’s actual measured weight is a much more reliable measure of how much fishing gear it can carry than tonnage, which can vary quite substantially regarding who is doing the estimating. Pull the boat out of the water with the fishing gear, safety and navigation equipment and weigh it on a lift to determine its actual weight and have that number certified by a Coast Guard officer or other government observer.
“From then on,” Altenburger suggests, “the fishermen that used to be stuck with a 36-foot boat and a and 200 horsepower engine could built the longest skinny-ass boat he wants as long as it’s the same weight and horsepower. That opens up all sorts of magic.”
For her part, Altenburger has been knocking on doors of politicians and administrators trying to get them to change the regulation and maybe initiate a proof-of concept project, with little success. Politicians have expressed interest in her ideas, but never seem willing to take up the cause of changing the regulations. Politicians who talk a good game about preserving working waterfronts in New England just haven’t stepped up to the plate.
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, a heavy hitter when it comes to fisheries management and oceans policy in New England, agrees that regulations imposed under the days at sea regime are a hindrance to innovation in boat design.
“She’s absolutely right to be frustrated,” Shelley says. “She’s not wrong. The barriers she’s looking at and bumping up against are real. Tradition is such a profound force in New England fisheries. The management system should be rewarding innovation, not throttling it.”
Still, it’s hard not to think she’s on the right track for two main reasons. The first is that diesel fuel is likely to get more expensive over the years, in part because of ongoing efforts to make the American economy “carbon neutral” which means we are going to see taxes on petroleum products, diesel oil included, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Secondly, consumers are paying more attention to the sustainability of the food products they buy. The Marine Stewardship Council, for example, certifies fisheries to reassure consumers that the fish they are eating is harvested from healthy fisheries that aren’t being overharvested. Some grocery stores even announce that their fish is harvested from sustainable fisheries over the loudspeakers.
“The day will come in which some fish will not be desirable if it comes from a high-carbon fleet,” Altenburger warns. “People won’t want to buy it. A high-carbon fleet simply cannot produce sustainable seafood.”
Fishermen and the people who regulate them should take a look at the innovation that has taken place in other industries, especially in transportation, Altenburger says. Airlines and trucking companies have worked assiduously to reduce their fuel costs, but there hasn’t been much technological advancement in the fishing industry simply because regulations make it impossible.
Maybe it’s time to make the change and let the future begin.
“We’re losing the spirit of innovation,” she said. “Something’s not right here.”
Dexter Van Zile is the former Northeast Bureau Chief for National Fisherman