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newportnewstimes 5/28/04


Oregon fishing industry on the rebound
By Joel Gallob Of the News-Times

After several years of woeful news, the worst appears over for the Oregon coast - and the broader West Coast - commercial fishing industry.

"We've bottomed out, we're coming back up, and I think that's very important," Ginny Goblirsch, past president of Newport Fishermen's Wives and now a commission member at the Port of Newport, said this week.

Dave Wright, manager of the Pacific Shrimp processing plant in Newport, agreed. "There's an awful lot of positives happening," he said.

"We've been through the worst," said Onno Husing, Director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association (OCZMA). "In 2002 there was an air of desperation. Now there's an increasing sense of optimism. There's a proliferation of new small enterprises, including fish buyers at the wholesale and retail level who are using new trends in consumer demand and pioneering new markets."

Dissenting opinions

Not everyone feels that way. Jeff Boardman, President of the Newport Shrimp Producers Coop, went back out shrimping this week after a ten-day boat "tie-up" collapsed. When the price talks began, boats out of Westport (Washington) went shrimping while others stayed home to negotiate prices. When the Westport vessels later received a price rise, Boardman concluded the new price negotiation system under the state Department of Agriculture, which worked so well in setting prices for Dungeness crab, may not work in the future.

The details of a report issued this month by Yachats-based economist Hans Radtke and Shannon Davis - together, the Research Group - make it clear there are some trends still at work that are not so cheerful. But the positive ones are far more numerous.

The overview

"Sardines," said Radtke, "are back after 50 years." The Dungeness crab, he said, "is a cycle we thought was seven years, but it's been up quite a while now." The shrimp situation, Radtke continued, "is kind of sad," as the West Coast fleet faces "very tough competition" from other regional shrimpers and from aquaculture. "You can grow Chinese pond shrimp and they look good; they don't taste that great, but they're OK for presentation."

Further, adds Lincoln County Commissioner and former commercial fisherman Terry Thompson, this year's shrimp are nearly all three and four-years olds, with hardly a juvenile around. That's good for shrimpers now, but doesn't bode well for the next couple years.

Salmon, Radtke said, "has been a good story" in the past few years, and whiting, just recently placed on the overfished list, may soon be taken out of that category.

That puts nearly all the key fisheries in improving shape.

The factors

Numerous factors have converged to lift the fishing fleet.

Some are government related. One is the recent federal buyback of groundfish permits, which has cut fishing capacity in Oregon by half. Another is the new role the Oregon Agriculture Department (ODA) now has in facilitating pre-season price talks between fishermen and buyers. Other factors include the increasingly strict limits the PFMC placed on groundfish catch in the past several years, and the Endangered Species Act protections and Oregon Salmon Plan habitat enhancements of the past several years.

Market factors have helped, too. Recent wide publicity about the drawbacks of farmed salmon - first reported in Oregon by the News-Times and later the focus of a five-part series by The Oregonian - have sparked a price rise for Oregon-caught salmon. Americans have become more health conscious, and consumers have become more aware of the benefits of seafood, Husing said, with its low carbohydrates and high levels of Omega 3 fatty acid, documented as useful in fighting heart disease and depression.

About the same time, Governor Ted Kulongoski began his Brand Oregon project with a Seafood Oregon marketing effort. That promotional effort got a major boost from the federal government. In January, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden (D) and Gordon Smith (R) and other members of the Oregon delegation secured $3 million for marketing for Oregon seafood. Half went to the Oregon Trawl Commission, which has taken the lead in the Seafood Oregon effort, the other half to the Oregon State University Seafood Laboratory for new seafood product research and development.

The fishermen themselves, too, are "being proactive and adaptable," said Goblirsch, and began looking for new niche markets for their products even before the Seafood Oregon project began. "Now the opportunities are in value-added products and niche markets. My family," she added, "just launched our own website."

Other sources of the upturn are natural, with a striking, if cyclical, upturn in the Dungeness crab harvest. And the numbers of salmon coming across the Columbia River dams have astonished scientists, while the numbers in many (though not all) coastal streams have also jumped.

Perhaps most important is the huge fact that the ocean has returned to conditions favoring larger fish populations. The changes are cyclical, based on a return of strong cold water upwellings. These sweep nutrients up from the seafloor, making them available to fish up and down the water column.

Triple factors

Husing says there's been "a trifecta of factors."

One was the buyback program, with its "promise that if you stay in the industry, the trip limits will go up. In return for a small assessment on those who do stay in," he recalled, "to help pay the buy-out costs, there was to going to be an increase in the value you can catch. And the PFMC just met and had a lot of smiles because that end of the bargain has been met."

Number two was the legislation that brought crab and shrimp price talks under the ODA umbrella. That not only got the crabbers out on time - an unusual event - but it "got people out shrimping," Husing noted, whatever the subsequent issues. And the shrimp price is better, he added, than it had been a year or two earlier, before the ODA process. "There's always going to be brinkmanship," Husing said, "but at least there's a forum, a chance to have price negotiations. A huge barrier's been removed."

Part three, Husing said, is the Seafood Oregon effort. "It's an unprecedented collaboration, and it got a big, timely shot in the arm with the publicity about farm fish and wild fish. That really moved prices up."

County Commissioner Thompson, who sold his fishing boat in the buy-back, added "part of it is the biological information we get. It's starting to catch up with what the fishermen have been saying. They've been saying there's more fish out there than the scientists think, but it takes a couple years to go from the fish tickets to the databases."

All agree the return of good ocean conditions has been critical - and that change began with the end of the El Niño ocean phenomenon a few years ago.

Radtke warns "a lot of this is cyclical" and "things could go down again in a few years." That may be implicit in the nature of cycles, but, says Goblirsch, "we survived the downturn, we're on the upswing now."





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