The O’Hara Fishing Dynasty: Their Secret? Knowing When to Fish or Cut Bait

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Free Press Online], August 14, 2015
By Christine Parish

O'Hara Corporation's Defender
On July 31, O’Hara Corporation launched the first American fishing vessel that will be able to chase fish through polar ice off the coast of Alaska.

Now in its fifth generation, the O’Hara family business has shown the ability to adapt as fishing technology, two world wars, and changes in international fisheries laws upended the industry.

“Every generation had its bad thing to deal with,” said Frank O’Hara Jr. from the O’Hara Corporation headquarters on Tillson Avenue in Rockland. Born in 1960, he is actually the fourth Francis J. O’Hara and is the company vice president. One of his three sons is the fifth-generation Frank. His father, who was Frank Jr. and is now Frank Sr., 84, is the company president.

All of the fifth generation is in the family business and working in management.

Frank Jr.‘s great-grandfather started the fishing family dynasty in 1904 when he launched a Gloucester sailing vessel, the Francis J. O’Hara, Jr., which fished for cod, haddock, and halibut off of Georges Bank until it was sunk by a German U-boat in 1918.

The vessel’s namesake got a $5,000 family loan to start his own business: the Atlantic and Pacific Seafood Company in Boston.

That was the first real step towards becoming the O’Hara Corporation. Frank O’Hara number two expanded into providing ice for a growing fishing fleet that shrank dramatically during World War II — when the company turned 13 of its 17 fishing vessels over to the U.S. government for the war effort.

The O’Hara company expanded from Boston to Portland, then Portland to Rockland in mid-century. The bait business got under way, the fishing fleet was growing and working hard, ice was needed for the fish and fish was needed for the factories that were going strong on the Rockland waterfront. In the 1970s, the O’Hara’s took advantage of another opportunity. They formed a partnership, started Eastern Fisheries Company, and began fishing for scallops out of New Bedford.

Things looked good.

Then they didn’t.

“My dad’s bad thing was the 200-mile fishing limit,” said O’Hara Jr. National laws in the 1970s to regulate international fishing near American coasts, followed by international fishing agreements in the 1980s, were meant to stop free-for-all fishing and establish conservation measures. They also established that O’Hara’s boats could no longer fish for groundfish — cod, flounder and haddock — off Canada. A massive regulatory foul-up followed at the national level when fishermen were encouraged to borrow money at low rates to upgrade to high-tech fish-finding gear. The result was too many heavily indebted fishermen with the ability to catch a lot more fish competing for dwindling groundfish stocks in a smaller geographic area.

The New England groundfishery collapsed. Disputes over
management continue even now. O’Hara’s could have gone out of business with a whole lot of other New England groundfishermen in the ’80s.

“We already had a lot going on,” said Frank Jr. “We were heavily capitalized, too.”

They refit their biggest fishing vessel, the Constellation, into a catcher-processor — short-hand in the fishing industry for a boat that can haul nets and then process the catch in a below-decks factory and flash freeze it onboard.

O’Hara’s new plan was to send the Constellation after squid, butterfish and mackerel, marine species that were not being targeted by other fishermen. But the mackerel disappeared, the butterfish were plagued by a disease, and squid was overfished.

The O’Hara’s regrouped. It wasn’t just Frank Sr. and Frank Jr. A good part of each generation worked in the marine industry.

In 1988, they decided to go after summer flounder near Newfoundland. Meanwhile, they sold a couple of boats. After two seasons of fishing off Newfoundland, they brought the 155-foot Constellation to port.

“I was about 30 years old then,” said Frank Jr. “We sat down and talked it over. What were we going to do?”

This was their premium fishing vessel. She could haul. She could freeze. The O’Hara’s were heavily in debt, there were no fish, and the Rockland fish processing plants were closing down.

Frank Jr. was young enough to take on risk. He said his father, Frank Sr., knew what was at stake.

They had a confident and competent captain aboard the Constellation who was willing to take a risk, too. In 1990, they sent the Constellation down through the Panama Canal and up to the Bering Sea. She put in to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a rough-and-ready frontier fishing town halfway down the Aleutian Island chain that would become the number-one fishing port in the world in a few short years. From there, the Bering Sea fishing grounds opened up to the north all the way to the polar ice. The Gulf of Alaska opened up to the south of the Aleutian Island chain. The Gulf of Maine, by comparison, could fit in the Bering Sea’s back pocket.

To the O’Haras, it was all brand new.

“It was a big decision to go to Alaska,” said Frank Jr. “Dutch Harbor was an unknown. There was no Internet, there were no cell phones. It cost $10 a minute to make a phone call.”

It paid off. Yellowfin sole, flathead and rock sole, pollock and Pacific cod were hauled back and the 30-metric-ton nets winched up the stern ramps, the fish headed and gutted onboard in the below-decks factory, then flash frozen within two hours of catching.

The O’Haras sent two more catcher-processers to Alaska: the Defender and the Enterprise. All three have been working together for the past 20 years, fishing and processing fish around the clock when they are at sea. The crews come from Mexico, the Philippines, Iowa and Rockland to Seattle, where they sign on for a 75-day contract to work 16-hour shifts, seven days a week for a percentage share of the catch. There’s a bonus, a 401K account, and health insurance, said Frank Jr.

Depending on the catch, a share can be very good money.

Every week or so a freezer cargo ship, known as a tramper, comes up from Tokyo, and the O’Hara boats unload frozen fish. The tramper distributes it to China, Korea and Japan. Most of the fish is thawed, processed more fully into fillets or other products and refrozen before being shipped back to American Walmarts and Costcos and Long John Silvers. Potentially, the frozen cod from the local Walmart was caught by an O’Hara boat, did a semi-navigation of the globe, then ended up on your plate for dinner.

What about fresh haddock or flounder in Rockland?

Frank Jr. shook his head.

“Maybe if they get it from Boston,” he said. Cod? There isn’t much left to fish. Most is flown into Boston fresh from Iceland.

“Just about all fish caught is frozen and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Frank Jr. “If you are flash-freezing two hours after it’s caught, that’s a fresher fish than one caught anywhere from four to twelve days before it ends up on a fresh fish counter.”

“Really fresh fish is translucent,” he said. If it’s quick frozen and stored properly and thawed properly, the once-frozen fish can still be translucent.

Together, the three Alaska catcher-processors make up 50 to 55 percent of O’Hara Corporation’s business. The new ice-cutting catcher-processor, the 194-foot Araho, will replace the Defender and the Enterprise, both of which are ready to be retired, according to Frank Jr.

The Araho was designed by the Norwegian naval architectural firm Skipsteknisk and will be able to fish through two-foot-thick ice floes, with ice davits that divert the weight of the ice from the trawl net. Propellers that directionally push water will enhance the vessel’s power, thereby reducing fuel use by 35 to 40 percent over O’Hara’s current Alaskan fishing vessels.

She will head to the fishing grounds in mid-winter.

While fish are abundant off Alaska and the resource is considered well-managed overall by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the North Pacific is facing conservation challenges that will continue to change how commercial fisheries operate.

Frank Jr. said O’Hara Corp. has stayed in step with the conservation measures and oversight of the fisheries they work in. They use lighter nets that skim above the bottom, and they’ve reduced their waste and reduced the number of fish species caught accidentally that are of conservation concern. They plan to keep changing with the conservation requirements, he said.

Another 20 to 25 percent of the O’Hara business comes from Eastern Fisheries — anchored by their New Bedford scallop fleet of 25 boats, the largest in the world. They also operate three waterfront scallop processing plants in New Bedford and another in China, along with a Chinese scallop farm. North Atlantic scallops are shipped for sale in Asia and there are daily shipments to Europe. Asian scallops are shipped back to the U.S. and sold by O’Hara in the wholesale American market.

Meanwhile, O’Hara’s has no new plans for Rockland. Since they expanded into lucrative Alaskan fishing, they bought up most of the Tillson Avenue waterfront stretching from the municipal fish pier almost to FMC.

O’Hara’s currently employs 55 people at their various Rockland marine businesses, they run two herring boats out of the north end of Rockland, are the largest lobster bait dealer in Maine, operate a marina in mid-town, with related boat services, and house more boats during the winter inside their 300,000-square-foot storage facilities than any other boat storage company in the state.

They are just completing a heated and ultra-ventilated boat painting facility on Tillson Avenue where paint can dry in record time, even in mid-winter, and three new work bays at the end of the street. The largest new boat service work bay will be used to finish off new boats built by Back Cove/ Sabre yachts, with which O’Hara Corporation has established a partnership. The location allows for easy launching at O’Hara’s Journey’s End Marina just across the street.

When the Rockland activities of the O’Hara Corporation are put together it adds up to about 10 percent of the business.

Frank Jr. said the company had two studies done to see if it made sense to expand into hotels or other types of development on Tillson Avenue. It didn’t. The company’s Rockland real estate is almost 100 percent utilized right now, he said. Commercial, marine-related business is what it will stay. There are no plans to sell, to change, or to buy more.

If this O’Hara generation has a bad thing to deal with, it will be market competition from pond-raised tilapia which can be grown in oxygen-poor ponds not much bigger than a large mud puddle.

“Competing with aquaculture products, their low price, their low labor costs, that’s our challenge,” said Frank Jr. “I don’t even know if they feed tilapia. The taste can’t compete with freshly caught, cold-water flounder that’s frozen within two hours of catching.”

“That’s what we have to emphasize,” said Frank Jr. “We’ve got some marketing work to do.”