A new breed of marketers gives fishing towns a leg up

  • John Warner gets more - and can pay fishermen more - for the fish he sells directly to wholesalers

    REBECCA CLARREN
  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 towns."

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 friendly.

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."