Leesa Cobb sees plenty of Oregon’s latest fishing crisis up close and personal. As part of a fishing family in Port Orford, she has felt the collapse of the bottom fish industry. It has put an extra squeeze on household finances and dampened the community optimism that’s otherwise as common among commercial fishermen as scruffy beards and weatherworn hands.
“Our income will be down 50% this year,” she says. “We’re really tightening our belts, looking for anywhere to cut expenses.”
Cobb’s husband, Darrell, is a second-generation trawler who has plied the water off the coast in search of bottom-dwelling fish such as cod, snapper and sole that delight diners and pay the bills back home.
“When Darrell was 8, he was told he could either go to Sunday School or go fishing,” Cobb says. “So he went fishing with his dad. He’s been doing it ever since, probably 25 years now.”
But lately, it’s been a lot harder to do it for a living. Groundfishermen in Oregon have seen their incomes sliced over the last decade as regulators cut back harvest levels to ease concerns about the health of fish stocks.
The change has Cobb scrutinizing her budgets as well as listening to her small fishing community’s restaurant and store owners worry that if the fishing industry dries up, their businesses will, too. “It’s clear that if the fishing business weren’t here, they wouldn’t be here,” says Cobb, who supports her family business by serving as bookkeeper and crew cook. She also serves on the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, an industry group that pushes for sustainable fisheries.
The quiet storm off the Oregon Coast that the Cobb family is experiencing could change the course of fishing ports from Astoria to Brookings. For decades, fishermen dragged their nets along the Pacific Ocean floor, scooping up fish. Bottom fishing has been the backbone of the fishing industry since the 1930s and is the most lucrative on the West Coast.
But now coastal commercial fishermen on the coast and the towns that depend on them are facing their biggest threat since the collapse of the salmon fishery in the 1990s.
SCIENTISTS WITH THE NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES Service have become increasingly concerned that certain groundfish populations aren’t breeding fast enough to replace the fish caught each year. The problem has been blamed largely on overfishing, lax management and changing ocean conditions. The federal government has listed as “overfished” eight species of groundfish, including lingcod, Pacific Ocean perch and bocaccio.
Those listings prompted federal officials to impose harvest cuts from 14% to 85% in the last few years. As a result, Oregon landings dropped from $59 million in 1995 to $41 million last year, according to fishery economist Hans Radke.
What the cutbacks translate to is too many boats going after too few fish. After the West Coast ground-fishery was declared a federal disaster in January 2000, fishery managers and fishermen determined that at least half the fleet needed to get out of the business in order for the rest to survive.
While industry advocates are clamoring for federal aid to buy boats out of the water, retrain fishermen and get help for ailing fishing communities, the cutbacks have also generated some bad feelings.
“There’s no doubt there are fear and anger,” says Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, which represents coastal communities. “One of the most disconcerting, maddening things is that no one knows where the bottom is.”
ALONG THE DOCKS AT GOLD BEACH, veteran Scott Boley is still making a fishing living. He and a handful of other fishermen are able to make it, he says, because they’ve been aggressive in finding new ways to make money, mostly through live fisheries, from which fish are delivered alive to market. Elsewhere, though, fishermen are barely hanging on. Others have voluntarily jumped ship, hoping to cut their losses and sell their boats before things get worse.
Still, many are trying to wait it out and see.
“Who falls out and who survives depends on their circumstances,” says Boley, who’s fished for 25 years and has recently focused his operation more on salmon. “Some people are optimistic,” he says, “but it depends on how big your mortgage is, I guess.”
Because of the substantial investment, it takes to operate a commercial fishing operation — including boat payments, equipment replacement, and crew — bankruptcy is a threat when a fishery goes south. That weighs heavy, especially for those with boat payments or looming college tuition for their kids.
“Most people are down right now,” says Newport’s Ginny Goblirsch, a partner in her family’s fishing business. “There’s a lot of worry.” Goblirsch has studied the crisis as an Oregon Sea Grant agent and works with struggling fishing families as part of a groundfish outreach program.
She compares the fishing crisis to what happened to farmers in the Midwest during the 1980s. “Financial problems were enormously difficult,” she says. “Many families delayed making decisions about staying or leaving the industry until all their options had run out, and they had no choice.”
Even if coastal groundfishermen decide to leave fishing, many have no income to make a transition. Most don’t get unemployment. In 1999, the state Legislature allowed owners of small fishing boats to opt out of extending unemployment benefits, and most did. Now, many crew members are left without that cushion.
Goblirsch and others are trying to find ways for fishermen to get new jobs. “These are generally the older guys with families,” she says. “This is a permanent downsizing for the industry with no safety nets.”
The effects are extending beyond the waters. In coastal towns such as Astoria, Newport and Coos Bay, marine supply companies, processing plants, net menders, boatwrights, and fuel dock operators are feeling the pinch.
“I think the worst is yet to come for us,” says Kurt Englund of Englund Marine Supply, which has seven stores along the coast and has relied on commercial fishing to stay afloat. The real struggle, Englund says, will come when half of the fleet is pulled out of the water. “That’s going to be the scary part. That’s gonna hurt.”
The company has recently diversified its operation with recreational and industrial gear to soften the blow of the groundfish situation.
Like the marine supply company, fish processing plants have also been struck. Hundreds of workers have been laid off and several plants have closed. Although most plants process crab, shrimp and other species, groundfish is essential. “Groundfish is the keystone that holds the West Coast fishing community together,” says Rod Moore of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. “Take it away and everything collapses.”
For communities that experienced the drastic downturn of the salmon industry, the latest sting is familiar. “The trickle-down effect is tremendous,” says Steve Bodnar, director of the Coos Bay Trawlers’ Association, which represents groundfishermen on the southern Oregon coast.
TO ADDRESS THE FISHING communities’ needs, the Portland-based Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages the coastal fishery, has put together a plan to trim half of the West Coast fleet by buying fishermen out of the business. The cost could top $50 million, and it’s unclear exactly how that buyback program would be funded. Still, people agree that it must be done.
“You either have to reduce the fleet by a buyback, or the fleet will be reduced by attrition, which means bankruptcies,” Bodnar says. He and others see some irony in the fact that the government encouraged the groundfishing fleet to beef up a generation ago – which may have played a key role in overfishing. “The government gave us incentives to build up the fleet,” he says. “Now we need incentives to downsize it.”
For the fishermen who remain, the key to survival will be diversifying operations. Those who go after shrimp, crab and other fish improve their chances of keeping bankruptcy at bay, according to an Oregon Sea Grant study that came out last year. “If you’ve just got a groundfish permit and that’s how you make your living, you’ve got real problems,” Husing says.
While advocates and the government are looking for solutions, a lingering frustration among some fishermen is that the science behind the cutbacks isn’t certain. Determining the number of groundfish is no simple task, and though the law mandates limits if there are signs that fish stocks are suffering, not everyone is convinced that’s the case.
“We’re still not trusting the science behind all of this,” Bodnar says.
But Cobb and others with the Pacific Marine Conservation Council say that kind of thinking leads nowhere. “The fact is, this is the best science we’ve got right now,” Cobb says.
Late last year, the U.S. Congress put up $2.3 million to obtain more accurate information on groundfish. The money will be used to put federal observers on fishing boats to monitor and count fish that are caught. Lawmakers will decide this year whether to put more money into that program.
In the meantime, people who are committed to seeing this problem solved hope their communities will hang on and not turn their back on the industry. Some worry that commercial development will take over waterfronts and leave no place for the remaining processing plants to survive. “Once something like a hotel moves in, there’ll never be a fish plant there again,” Goblirsch says.
Beyond the economic heartache, there’s an underlying concern about the future of this traditional industry and people’s lives along the coast.
“It’s not just people in the industry,” Husing says. “It’s part of the culture and the ambience of coastal Oregon.”
MIKE STARK is a former newspaper reporter now working as a freelance writer and radio journalist in Astoria. For this issue, he wrote about the crisis-ridden groundfish industry in Oregon, exploring the ways it’s affecting fishermen and coastal communities.