Marco Marine, a landmark on the Seattle waterfront, closes its shipyard

After 52 years of building all kinds of boats for Pacific Northwest clients, Marco Marine has closed its Seattle shipyard. A fixture on the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the company cited lack of new orders for the decision.

San Francisco is one of two station boats Marco Marine delivered to the San Francisco Bar Pilots in 2001. The 104-foot steel-hull boat can operate at 14 knots.
   Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

“We just don’t have the level of work we had historically,” said founder and president Peter Schmidt. About 50 people will be out of work because of the shutdown.

Marco had a worldwide reputation for building crab boats, tuna seiners and hydraulic fishing machinery. The king crab boom that began in the 1970s combined with the Alaska salmon fisheries in the 1980s made Marco a booming shipyard with more than 800 employees.

The 83-year-old Schmidt plans to sell the 5.5-acre property for $10 million. If he can’t find a buyer willing to pay that amount, he may lease some of the space in the 10 buildings that border Salmon Bay. “Zoning regulations require us to only lease space to an industrial company,” Schmidt said.

Over the past few years the new construction business at Marco had declined precipitously, as new regulations created a surplus of fishing boats.

Boatyards in other areas of the country have experienced similar problems. For example, a half dozen shipyards in Bayou La Batre, Ala., used to turn out nearly 100 or so shrimp trawlers a year. That is down to just a handful as the price for the catch dropped and fuel prices increased.

Marco tried to compensate by building workboats. But the company was unable to find enough business in that sector of the market. The company built just 14 boats in the past 12 years. Most of those vessels were tugs for Crowley Maritime, a large West Coast provider of ship-handling services.

For example, Marco built the 105-foot Millennium Dawn, a powerful multipurpose vessel capable of ship assist, inland and ocean towing, and escort services. With a pair of Caterpillar 3512B engines rated at 4,400 hp, the vessel was capable of a bollard pull of 135,000 pounds.

Millennium Dawn was the third vessel in the series to be built for Crowley and the 12th tractor tug overall Marco built for Crowley.

Marco also built a pair of pilot vessels for the San Francisco Bar Pilots, but contracts for even one-off vessels became very far apart. The company then turned to ship repair, but that business is noted for poor profit margins and lots of competition.

Other Seattle-area boatbuilders echoed Schmidt’s sentiments about the state of Pacific Northwest boatbuilding.

Matt Nichols, chief executive of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, said he could understand Schmidt’s decision in light of boatbuilding trends and the state of the economy in general. “There is just not much work to be had. We are all struggling to get the work we can,” Nichols said.

Marco will not totally disappear from the American maritime scene. The company still has fishing, boatbuilding and mining operations in Chile and Peru, run by Schmidt’s son Hans. The company employs about 600 people in those two countries to harvest swordfish and scallops and to build 300-foot tuna seiners.

By Professional Mariner Staff