On the Water

Ship Model, Catcher-Processor Alaska Ocean

This scale model of the fishing vessel Alaska Ocean was custom-built for the Smithsonian by Erik A. R. Ronnberg Jr., at his shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The starboard hull is cut away to reveal the factory where workers process tons of fish into blocks of frozen fillets, minced fish, and surimi (used in making imitation crab meat and other food products). The cutaway also shows the laboratory where fish products are tested, the freezer hold, a stateroom, and the galley. On the weather (top) deck, the model features all of the deck machinery, the trawling equipment, and the vessel’s rigging. A net full of fish is shown being emptied into one of the bins on the factory floor below.

Ronnberg spent about 27 months building the model, and estimates he spent 5,500 hours getting every detail right. While he built the wooden hull according to design drawings provided by naval architect Guido Perla of Seattle, he had to make his own drawings and patterns to craft the machinery and equipment, most of which are cast in metal. Ronnberg used cheesecloth and tulle to make the net and spent untold hours fashioning the chafing gear out of acrylic yarn, which he knotted in bunches before separating the strands by hand.

He studied photographs and films of the actual vessel at sea, and made detailed figures of people dressed in appropriate working gear in the factory, on the deck, in the fish hold, in the galley, and on the bridge. The model is populated with 125 figures, 1,200 individual fish, and several masses of fish in the cod end of the net. Everything on the model is painted by hand. The scale is 3/16th inch = 1 foot.

The Alaska Ocean itself is a 376-foot-long vessel in the Seattle-based catcher-processor fleet. Workers catch, process, package, and freeze groundfish—mostly pollock and Pacific whiting—in the Bering Sea and in the waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The vessel can harvest about 325 metric tons of fish per day and can freeze over 250,000 pounds of fish product daily.

The idea to build the Alaska Ocean began in the late 1980s. Jeff Hendricks, a fisherman from Anacortes, Washington, who owned and operated a fleet of boats in partnership with a Japanese company, decided to “Americanize” his operations. This was in advance of the American Fisheries Act of 1998, which sought to increase American ownership in the fleet by requiring that vessels be American-built, owned, and operated. Although Hendricks sought bids from several American shipyards for his new venture, there were none at the time that could handle the scope of the vessel he envisioned. Eventually, he worked with a shipbuilder in Norway to expand and rebuild an American oil supply vessel. The Alaska Ocean arrived in Anacortes in the summer of 1990 and began fishing that fall with a largely local crew. It remains in the fleet and, as of 2008, is owned and operated by Glacier Fish Company.

Because catcher-processors are so efficient, their operations are highly regulated to prevent overfishing. A harvest quota is determined by the National Marine Fisheries Service and members of the Pollock Conservation Cooperative, a group of catcher-processors including the Alaska Ocean, divide up the quota amongst themselves. This self-regulating measure ends what is often called the "race for fish," and results in more careful, less wasteful fishing.

Independent scientific observers also travel aboard every vessel in the fleet, monitoring the trawling and empyting operations. They record all by-catch, the term for fish caught in the net other than the target species. There are hard limits on allowable by-catch for certain species, and because the data are computed, reported, and shared for the fleet as a whole, individual vessels are motivated to monitor the by-catch and make adjustments.

ID Number:
wood, metal
20 5/16 in x 11 1/4 in x 72 13/16 in; 51.6128 cm x 28.575 cm x 185.0136 cm
Gift from At-Sea Processors Association thru Stephanie Madsen, Executive Director

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