Port reverses wholesale crab buying agreement at harbor

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Port of Bellingham commissioners unanimously voted during their regular September 15 meeting to reverse their previous decision on who can buy and sell crabs wholesale at the Blaine Harbor. This decision comes after port tenants brought up concerns that the agreement would adversely affect their businesses.

During a September 1 port meeting, representatives of the Tulalip Tribes and Boundary Fish, Inc. expressed concern after seeing non-leaseholding tenants selling wholesale crab at Blaine Harbor. Company representatives said they didn’t have fair competition with other buyers who don’t have the same expenses leaseholders pay.

The port granted business licenses to two non-leaseholding tenants, one in Whatcom County and one in Seattle, to purchase wholesale crab at the Sawtooth Dock this August. Before August, the port had not allowed the buying and selling of wholesale crab in Blaine, although it’s been permitted in Bellingham’s Squalicum Harbor since 2016.

Port of Bellingham executive director Rob Fix said the port has gone back and forth about crab buying in the Blaine Harbor over the years. More buyers are better for fishermen but if too many people use port property, then it crowds the harbor, he said.

Tulalip Tribes purchased its 8,000-square-foot Blaine building from Sound Pacific Seafoods LLC last December that sits on land leased by the Port of Bellingham.

“We spent a considerable amount of money purchasing this property, setting up lease and operating this business to be completely undermined by box trucks that have no cost overhead coming in and competing against us within eyesight,” said Jason Gobin, fish and wildlife director for Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources, during the September 1 port meeting.

Port staff provided two options for commissioners to vote on during the September 15
meeting.

The first option aimed to manage fair wholesale operations in Blaine for lease holding and non-leaseholding tenants. Businesses without leases in this agreement would have paid 25 cents per pound of crab to the Port, which Fix said was a higher fee to deter outside companies from crowding the harbor.

Alan Birdsall, manager of marinas for the Port of Bellingham, said during the September 15 meeting that staff found there isn’t a uniform model for wholesale crab buying agreements at neighboring ports. Arrangements at neighboring ports range from not having agreements to having a per-pound fee, but those didn’t exceed 10 cents per pound, he said.

Port staff then contacted Blaine tenants in leases with the port, who said they didn’t want other businesses tenants operating wholesale in Blaine, Birdsall said.

Commissioners ultimately voted 3-0 on a second option to immediately prohibit non-leaseholding tenants from wholesale purchasing and sales in Blaine. This will also mean immediate termination of the two wholesale crab buying licenses that started in August. The port will lease the south pier to an additional buyer starting October 1.

Fix said he will begin the search for a fifth Blaine Harbor tenant, with hopes of finding someone who will operate well with existing tenants and follow port rules.

Commissioner Michael Shepard said during the meeting that the commissioners took the tenants’ concerns to heart and he believes the per-pound fee did not fully address their worries.

“I believe this second option will allow us to make best use of our port property, to maximize business interaction at Blaine Harbor, while still respecting and appreciating those tenants we still have agreements with and really want to continue having a long-term relationship with,” Shepard said.

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