For all of you who crave fish sticks and California rolls, rest assured: Come Oct. 1, the mammoth fishing vessels that catch and process pollock, the bland whitefish used for frozen fillets and fake crabmeat, will still be able to trawl.
And that will be in part because of a recent legal change affecting 500 large fishing vessels and the roughly 120 lenders that finance them, including large commercial banking companies like Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp.
Late last month President Bush signed into law an amendment that released the lenders from a seemingly insurmountable provision in the 1998 American Fisheries Act. It was a requirement that starting Oct. 1, banks that held mortgages on fishing vessels over 100 feet long proved that they were at least 51% owned by U.S. citizens.
A similar requirement would have been fine for the private fishing companies that often finance boat owners. And the fishing industry originally supported it as a way to close loopholes to foreign ownership of fishing vessels.
But the provision posed cumbersome obligations on publicly traded lenders, notably the large commercial banks, which would have been required to produce affidavits of U.S. citizenship from individual shareholders.
Anita Eoloff, the director of federal government relations for Wells Fargo, said it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for the San Francisco company to adhere to the ownership requirement.
That in turn would have forced them to cut off their financing of the big fishing ships, bankers said last week.
Our preferred marine mortgages basically could have been in jeopardy, said James A. Thorpe, Jr., the Seattle-based manager of maritime banking for Bank of America.
But thanks to the amendment, which was part of a supplemental appropriations bill, now the lenders only need to prove that they fit into one of the following categories: a state or federally chartered financial institution insured the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a farm credit lender, a commercial fishing and agriculture bank, a commercial lender eligible to own a vessel under the 1998 law, or a qualified mortgage trustee.
The fishing industry had lobbied hard for the fisheries bill, which tightened restrictions on foreign ownership of vessels that fish in U.S. waters. But because of the potentially devastating consequences of the provision, it was also one of the biggest proponents of its change.
If a bank had to release the mortgage, then the owner of the vessel would have risked losing its fishing endorsement which gives the vessel owner the right to fish a particular species.
The same ownership restrictions would have applied to banks participating in syndicated credit facilities to finance vessel ownership. It would have been very cumbersome, paperwork intensive, and perhaps we may not have been able to prove the level of ownership, said James L. Brenner, the head of commercial fisheries lending for Wells Fargo in Anchorage.
They averted a financial crisis in the fishing industry with these improvements, said Trevor McCabe, the executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, the trade association that represents the catcher/processor vessels with U.S. flags that fish the Bering Sea for groundfish, like pollock.
Mr. McCabe knows the law well. In 1998 he was a legislative director for Sen. Ted Stephens, R-Alaska, who supported the fisheries bill. The restrictions on foreign ownership by mortgage lenders were instituted to prevent the basic spirit of the law from being skirted, by lenders that could effectively control a vessel through their mortgage contract, he said.
But in a twist, the changes have eliminated a business opportunity that some small community banks were expected to exploit.
For example, Viking Community Bank, a $150 million-asset institution based in Seattles fishing district, had been hoping to provide trust services to other institutions under the old shareholder provision.
We have a pending application to get trust powers, and weve anticipated applying to be a mortgage trustee, said Dan Icasiano, the marketing director for Viking. Meeting the U.S. citizenship hurdle would have been possible for Viking, because it is closely held, with just 400 shareholders, and it is its own transfer agent.
Now the bank will have to review the amendment before deciding how to proceed with its mortgage trustee plans, he said.
Lending to the fishing industry is risky, because the catch depends on weather and other uncontrollable variables. According to Alaskas Department of Community and Economic Development, which makes direct loans to commercial fishers that cant get credit elsewhere, delayed payments on loans can balloon during a bad season.
For instance, 159 borrowers asked for extensions in 1996, and 241 did so a year later, but that number jumped to over 500 in each of the next two years, when fishers of Alaskas Bristol Bay had two poor seasons.
Because of low salmon prices, this year has been very difficult, said Greg Winegar, the director of the division of investment for the Alaska department. We anticipate seeing a lot of extensions.
Mr. McCabe said the chance that lenders would pull out of the fishing industry if their reporting requirements were too cumbersome helped move the amendment along.