COOS BAY, Ore. — Abandoned fish-processing plants cling to the harbor’s edge in this town of 15,000 along the Oregon coast. Less than 20 years ago, there were nine places where local fishermen could sell their fish. Now there are four. In nearby Port Orford, there are two.
Not long ago, every little port on the coast had between five and
10 small "wheelbarrow" processors competing to buy, process and
sell the fish local boats brought into port. Today, according to
Hans Radke, a natural resource economist and former chairman of the
Pacific Fishery Management Council, one giant processor —
Portland-based Pacific Seafood Group — gobbles up an
estimated 60 percent of all fish, aside from salmon, caught along
the coast from Northern California up through Washington. Lacking
any real competition, the corporation is able to depress the prices
fishermen receive for their catch, flattening the smaller players.
"It’s a tremendous burden on us," says John Warner,
a Coos Bay fisherman. "It all has a trickle down effect: If
fishermen get less, they have less to invest in their community. In
just 20 years, I’ve seen viable communities turn into ghost
It’s a trend all too familiar to ranchers:
Four giant meatpacking firms slaughter about 84 percent of the
nation’s cattle. In the last two decades, according to the
Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, the price that meatpackers
pay for beef has remained the same, even as the cost of producing
it has risen. To fight back, some family ranchers have formed
cooperatives, selling their product directly to restaurants and
consumers, and charging a premium by marketing them as ecologically
Now, fishermen are following the lead of such
ranchers. In 2002, Warner opened K-Lyn Fisheries LLC, a company
that buys fish and sells it directly to wholesalers in Seattle and
San Francisco. Fish caught by small boats are cleaned and iced more
quickly than fish caught in large trawl nets and sold by larger
dealers, says Warner.
Warner’s customers are
willing to pay a higher price for the small boats’ fresher,
longer-lasting fish, and he is able to pass along an extra 20 to 30
cents more per pound along to the fishermen. That drives up prices
throughout the entire harbor: Coos Bay fishers consistently get 20
percent more for their fish than Port Orford fishermen.
To encourage efforts like Warner’s, the W.K. Kellogg
Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have funded
Shorebank Enterprise Pacific, a nonprofit lending company, to
support small and mid-sized independent fish processors and buyers.
Since 1997, Shorebank has lent $4 million to 20 businesses from
Northern California to southern Alaska, says Diane Moody, the
bank’s fisheries director. Fishermen throughout the region
have also begun to market their fish directly to restaurants or
consumers via the Internet.
"Most fishermen want to go
out and be alone and just catch fish. They don’t want to
think about anything else," says Gilbert Sylvia, a marine resource
economist at Oregon State University. "But that culture has to
change. This isn’t the frontier anymore, and these guys have
to find a way to work together and create some sort of niche
market. They have to become businessmen."