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Weight, speed, condition of boat will save fuel

April 19th, 2011 | Margaret Bauman Print this article   Email this article  

As fuel prices rise and show little sign of potential decline, there are steps vessel owners may want to consider to get more for each dollar spent on operations, from a smooth hull to engine efficiency, says veteran commercial fisherman Terry Johnson.

Some of the suggestions offered by Johnson, during the mid-April 2011 ComFish forums at Kodiak, include slowing down, keeping the boat's bottom smooth and clean, reducing unnecessary weight, and checking engine exhaust, propeller, shaft, bearings and rudder to see if service, repair or part replacement is needed.

Johnson, a staff member of the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program in Anchorage, speaks from the perspective of 17 seasons as a commercial fisherman, as well as 11 seasons operating a marine ecotourism business.

Some of his suggestions, such as slowing down, may be more apropos to tourism and recreational boating than commercial fishing, where skippers have to move quickly to be in the right place at the right time for harvest openings and the line for delivery to a fishing tender.

Still, Johnson notes, in general more speed requires more fuel for the distance traveled.

Keeping the boat's bottom free of marine growth (barnacles and weeds) is also important, as well as smoothing rough paint that increases hull drag. Eliminate unnecessary underwater appendages such as struts, cooling tubes and transducers, if possible, and apply fairing to remaining appendages, he advised.

Weight is another issue, again more apropos to recreational than commercial fishing vessels. While seawater or ice ballast makes a more comfortable ride, there is a fuel penalty, he said.

Keeping all parts of the vessel in working order through maintenance, repair and replacement as needed, also helps, as does a review of electrical systems.

Consider replacing a generator with a bigger alternator, more storage batteries and an inverter, he said. Experiment with solar panels and a wind generator, and replace the electric range with a propane or diesel stove.

It also helps to keep detailed records of engine hours, distances traveled, speeds and fuel consumed, Johnson said. Calculate costs of improvements, return on investment and pay-back times. "If we want to improve fuel efficiency, we must re-evaluate preferences and cherished beliefs, keep meticulous records and seek the best verifiable results, he said.

In his post with the Sea Grant program at UA, Johnson said, there are not facilities to study fuel efficiency, but Sea Grant is studying what others are doing to bring together the best information on the subject for the public.

A 2008 survey of Alaska fishermen, who had experienced the highest fuel prices in history to that point, found that 88 percent of them had changed their behaviors in some way in response to higher fuel prices, he said.

The most common changes the fishermen made to save fuel were a decrease in prospecting or exploration, fishing closer to home and/or reducing the frequency of returning home.

Others included skipping openings, using tenders more often, quitting fishing earlier each day or earlier in the season, and joining with other quota holders to fish off of a single boat. Each of these changes resulted in vessels traveling less total distance, he said.

Johnson's Sea Grant document on lowering fuel costs can be downloaded at


Margaret Bauman can be reached at, or by phone at 907-348-2438

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