Mending the Nets

After years of a disastrous free-for-all on the sea, one Oregon fishing community searches for a sustainable future

  • At Port Orford in Oregon, crab pots and fishing boats await calmer seas

  • Port Orford, Oregon map

  • Harry Allen with son, Ronan, doesn't want to give up his traditional way of life

  • Bill Cobb left logging 40 years ago to become a fisherman in Port Orford

  • The port of Port Orford can handle small fishing boats, but not the 80- to 90-foot trawlers that work 20 miles out

  • A small catch of rockfish

  • Bottom trawl in operation

  • Leesa Cobb says small-scale fisheries management is critical


PORT ORFORD, OREGON — The wind rattles everything in this small fishing village on the southern Oregon coast: the naked masts of the wooden ships, the awnings of shops along a sparse main street, the broad leaves of the myrtle trees.

Yesterday, retirees crowded the dock in late afternoon to watch ships unload buckets of squirming groundfish. Not today. Down by the port, aside from the sound of waves hurling themselves against the concrete pier, things are quiet. Gone are the men in bright yellow and orange rubber overalls. The few scattered buildings wear an air of abandonment. Nature has decided: There will be no fishing today.

"I once got caught out on a day like this one, and it’s not something I’d want to do again," says veteran fisherman Harry Allen from the safety of his kitchen. Allen will spend the day painting old buoys and cleaning out tubs recently filled with shrimp. As he and his 2-year-old son, Ronan, duck into the large garage where he stores his pots and buoys and vats full of fish, Allen, a former machinist crewman for the Coast Guard, grumbles that it’s not just the weather that has grounded today’s fishermen. There are plainly fewer fish to be caught.

Over half of all salmon stocks along the West Coast are either threatened or endangered. All commercial abalone species, ravaged by overfishing, are now off-limits to fishermen. And nine of the 16 species of groundfish in the region — species such as lingcod, Pacific Ocean perch and canary — are below 25 percent of their historic population, which explains why, in 2002, fishermen along the West Coast caught 96 percent fewer groundfish than they did in 1990. Competition with large trawl ships — coupled with tougher federal regulations — spells tough times for small-boat fishermen like those in Port Orford.

"I used to catch enough in three or four days for a month," Allen says. "These days, you pull your heart and soul together, and use your head the best you can, and somehow you get it through another season."

Fishing communities such as Port Orford, nestled on the western side of the Cascade Range, have a story line that’s familiar to any Western rancher, farmer or logger. Declining resources, global markets and corporatization plague small family fishing operations. In the last 15 years, the number of Oregon boats fishing for salmon has declined by 82 percent.

In Port Orford, pop. 1,000, the median household income in 1999 was $23,289, just a little over half the state average. As in other parts of the rural West, children leave in search of better opportunities, draining small towns of their future.

Change is as inevitable as the wind, but locals here in Port Orford, pushed to the limits of hope, want to believe that they can chart their own course through this crisis, steering past sluggish government policy and a collapsing fishery. Allen is part of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, a novel effort in community-based fisheries management. He and his compatriots hope to unite a diverse group of government officials, environmentalists and members of the often-splintered fishing industry, and bring the fish — and the backbone of their community — back from the brink.

"Everybody’s trying to figure out how to make a living, and no one wants to give up," says Allen. "Fishing is a lot like farming — it’s not a job, it’s a traditional way of life. The ocean gets in your blood, and it’s hard to stay away."

But the group has a lot to prove. After all, fishermen, spurred by government mismanagement, created the mess in the first place.

From bounty to bust

Perched on a rocky bluff exposed to the open ocean, Port Orford is a border town on the brink of a liquid country. Wild storms batter the edge of the town, and every evening, fishermen must haul out their boats with a crane and store them on trailers high on a concrete dock. Nonetheless, the town has long drawn fishermen and women to partake in the bounty of what was, until recently, the last lawless frontier of the wild West.

From the back of his parked salmon troller — a 32-foot boat rigged with poles hung off either side like two arms — 71-year-old Bill Cobb looks out over the other wind-stranded boats and remembers what it was like when he left logging and got into the fishing business nearly 40 years ago. "Things were hot around here," he says. "You were ashamed to come back to dock if you didn’t have over 100 fish. Them was the good times."

In the early 1970s, an industry free-for-all was raging on the public seas. It wasn’t unlike what was happening on the West’s public lands, where cattle devoured native grasslands and loggers clear-cut the old-growth trees. But in the Interior West, there were agencies that at least paid lip service to management. Out on the open water, no one even pretended to be in control. In fact, when the federal government did decide to oversee the fishing industry, it only spurred a frenzied race for more fish.

At the time, foreigners were catching the majority of fish off American shores, and the U.S. was importing 76 percent of its seafood. In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in an effort to safeguard the nation’s food supply. Suddenly, the Magnuson Act, which decreed that only Americans could fish within 200 miles of the shore, created a huge, exclusive hunting grounds. And government subsidies, such as tax-deferred loans for boats, meant that practically everyone could afford to buy a new boat. The new Pacific Fishery Management Council (one of eight created by the Magnuson Act), was dominated by fishermen and seemed to allow endless days on the open water.

Of course, it couldn’t last forever. Rampant overfishing — combined with dams, logging and grazing that blocked and sullied salmon spawning streams — led to the steep decline of the Pacific salmon fishery. To compound the problem for fishermen, in the 1980s, a rapid rise in farmed fish in both Norway and Canada slashed prices for wild fish by nearly half (HCN, 3/17/03: Bracing against the tide).

"You’d drive down the street, and half the houses had for-sale signs. A bunch of guys lost their boats to the finance company," says Gary Anderson, Port Orford’s port manager, sitting in his snug office on the sea.

As salmon prices and stocks dwindled, many fishermen turned to groundfish as well as crab and shrimp. Tax credits and technological advances spawned another big shipbuilding boom; this time, it was large trawlers, many as long as 90 feet, that drag nets of up to 75 feet wide, scooping the ocean floor. (These are not to be confused with 300-foot "factory" trawlers, found mostly in Alaska, which process and package fish on the open ocean.) The large boats, many of them owned by corporations, can bring in 50,000 pounds of fish in a day — enough to feed 100,000 people a hefty dinner portion. They also inadvertently kill many fish too small for market, as well as off-season halibut and endangered or threatened species, such as salmon. To avoid penalties for catching fish, such as salmon, that trawlers aren’t permitted to catch, crews toss the dead fish, or "bycatch," overboard.

Port Orford never went big-time. Most Port Orford fishermen are long-liners, who catch groundfish from smaller boats, using ropes as much as three miles long, festooned with squid-baited hooks. The town’s crane can’t haul boats bigger than 40 feet up to its dry-dock port, so local boats have had to stay small.

As the trawlers raked in groundfish, says Anderson, prices dropped more quickly than a silver dollar down a well. But trawlers were wrecking more than just the market. "You watch those big nets, and I always figured they were hurting the habitat. People talk about how you would see hundreds of dead fish floating behind the boats," says Anderson, adding that federal managers have always ignored the small-boat owners in Port Orford, listening rather to the revenue-producing trawl owners. "I remember we tried to talk to the council about this years ago, but they didn’t listen. They waited until there was a crisis to do anything."

This crisis-driven management is characteristic of the councils. Created to propel the industry, the councils weren’t adept at solving complex problems. With meetings only five times a year, the board is pressed to conceive of a long-term strategy.

"There was a bycatch problem the day I got here 15 years ago, but the council was overwhelmed with 100 other issues and so the issue kept getting put off. Only now, when it’s become a crisis, are they trying to figure out what to do. It’s the same pattern over and over," says Gilbert Sylvia, a professor of marine resources economics at Oregon State University in Newport, Ore. "That’s not managing; that’s reacting to problems only after they’ve occurred."

By the early 1990s, in the absence of proactive management by the councils, local fishermen saw their worst fears confirmed. Salmon landed on the endangered species list, and many local runs were destroyed. In 1993, an estimated 83 coho salmon returned to the Elk River just north of town, down from the over 2,000 fish captured there in 1927. Similarly, in Dry Creek, a few miles to the north, chinook runs were just 20 percent of average. By 1995, Port Orford fishermen were landing only 789,000 pounds of groundfish, almost half the average of the 1980s.

Even as the evidence mounted, the Fishery Council, run in part by the very people who were doing the damage, did nothing. The dysfunctional system spawned chaos and management failure that wreaked havoc on the industry — and more significantly — harmed the ocean.

Stormy seas

If trawler owner Ralph Brown were a truck, he’d have eight cylinders. Strong and broad shouldered, Brown is a powerful guy: As one of eight public Pacific Fishery Management Council members appointed by the secretary of Commerce, Brown helps to create management plans for fisheries in federal waters throughout the West Coast.

Aside from Brown and a long-line fisherman, the council is composed of six recreational fishermen, one tribal member, one representative of NOAA Fisheries and one from each of the four state fisheries agencies in the region.

But sitting in his office in Gold Beach, 30 miles south of Port Orford, he talks about the irony of the situation. The public seats on the fishery councils have long been occupied by fishermen. But there’s been constant squabbling among the various fishing interests.

"It’s kind of funny: I’m a trawler, and I’m probably viewed as an arch-enemy to most people," says Brown. "But I’m supposed to represent the entire industry."

For decades, the fishermen who dominated the council — especially revenue-rich trawlers, who have more political clout — were loath to wean themselves from their income source. Although NOAA Fisheries — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service) — has final authority for all management plans, it rarely interferes with any of the eight regional councils.

It has been only recently, with exploitation at crisis proportions — 70 percent of all U.S. ocean species are overfished, according to a study by Oceana, an international, D.C.-based nonprofit — that things have shifted. In 1996, spurred by several environmental lawsuits, Congress reformed the Magnuson Act, mandating that the councils must put conservation over economics when formulating management plans. Now, each year, based on the limited available science, the council sets stock-specific harvest limits that it estimates won’t damage the sustainability of the species. Fishermen then buy permits that entitle them to a fixed share of the catch.

It is hard to tell if this new direction will work. Because the Magnuson Act created a fishery intent on exploitation, research was never a priority. The science used for these management decisions is marginal at best. All the baseline data for how many groundfish exist come from surveys of trawlers that are conducted every three years. These big ships sail along the continental shelf (between three and 100 miles offshore) and never near the rocky and shallow areas where species like rockfish live. With such limited information, the council has no knowledge of about 75 percent of the stocks in its charge. "It’s like trying to survey elk by only looking at the edges of where they like to live," says Brown, rolling his eyes. "We’re stuck. We’re making decisions based on suspect information."

Brown and other leaders in the industry have come to believe that reducing the number of fishermen is the only way to ensure that fishing continues. In November, Congress spent $46 million to buy out half of the West Coast groundfishing trawl fleet, permanently retiring 92 trawl vessels in an attempt to sustain both the resource and the communities. Buyouts have already been implemented twice on the East Coast. But here in Port Orford, locals worry that they won’t help the fishery recover. Trawler owners who sold out can still buy new boats and new fishing permits for other species, such as crab or shrimp, creating more pressure in another part of the ocean.

"If you’re selling out, you should sell out forever. It certainly doesn’t help us if those guys come back," says Geraldine Rickel, the town dog-groomer, as she washes the last suds from the eyes of a large brown mutt. It also seems unfair, says Rickel, that the big-boat owners, who have done the most damage to the ocean, each received hundreds of thousands of dollars in the buyout — while those remaining in the fishing industry will repay more than half the buyout cost through new taxes. Rickel’s husband, Dave, who fishes for black cod, adds, "Government isn’t looking at the big picture. It just seems like they’re listening to the big guys because they deliver millions of pounds of product and they have all the power."

A local solution

Into this political eddy walks a hardscrabble community group, trying to inject a local voice in the big picture. Laura Anderson arrived in Port Orford three years ago, asking fishermen a lot of questions about the topic they love to hate — marine reserves. Hired as a consultant by Environmental Defense to study reception to the idea along the Oregon coast, Anderson, the daughter of a fisherman, wasn’t surprised to hear the cries of frustration.

But she found something else that surprised and excited her. This is a town where people don’t lock their doors. If someone is hurt or lost at sea, most of the town heads down to the port to help. Anderson hopes the same goes for a lost industry.

"These fishermen seemed really engaged in the conversation. They’re really relatively cohesive," says Anderson. "It seemed like a place where a different approach might work."

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Anderson spent several years in the mid-’90s helping a village in the Philippines restore its coral reef fishery, using what’s been termed community-based management. The idea, implemented for centuries in places like Japan, is simple, theoretically: Give people responsibility for management and they will face the consequences if they fail to conserve the resource.

Seeing such collaborative efforts through requires charismatic grassroots leadership, and Anderson hit the jackpot in Leesa Cobb, a sassy local whose family has lived in Port Orford since the Civil War.

"When salmon gave out, we shifted to groundfish. Now groundfish is tough. It is critical that we manage everything we have left, so we don’t have any more crashes," says Cobb, sitting in a foldout chair in her small one-room office just off Port Orford’s main street. Born of ranchers and now married into a fishing family (she’s Bill Cobb’s daughter-in-law), she adds, "Large-scale management isn’t working. The council ignores small communities all the time. We have to try this or nothing will ever get better."

In November 2001, after receiving funding from the state, NOAA Fisheries, Environmental Defense and several charitable foundations, Cobb and Anderson rented a shop in town and opened the nonprofit Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT). It’s an effort to make good, science-based recommendations to the Fishery Council about how best to manage the local fishery. And while there are no guarantees that the Fishery Council will accept POORT’s recommendations, both the federal and state governments have encouraged POORT’s work.

"Two heads are better than one. I think this can help us do a better job," says Elizabeth Clarke, a fisheries expert at the Seattle-based Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of NOAA Fisheries, which helped give POORT over $100,000. "The local knowledge about the resource provides us with better information, engages the community and helps us with compliance."

In an effort to fill in the blank spots and questionable assumptions about the local fishery, POORT turned to Oregon State University for help. A graduate student is conducting interviews with all the local fishermen to create a database of geology, water depth and fish habitat. The data will be folded into a GIS mapping project of the area that will include existing data produced by the state. With some help from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the team has also started to conduct its own research, weighing and counting fish from the local reef to get a better idea of the size and age of local fish populations.

The team won’t begin to draw up any management recommendations until the research phase is completed. But it is already putting important pieces into place. In the last two years, the team has created an advisory board of fishermen; so far, 70 percent of local boat-owners are on board. POORT acts as a facilitator between that board and a scientific advisory board of environmentalists, Oregon State University professors and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The scientists are helping the fishermen create management plans, conduct research and design a new regulatory framework. All of that will culminate as early as 2005 in a proposed management plan, including fishing quotas, for Pacific Fishery Council. The team also plans to develop a marketing strategy for local fish, which could include either a Port Orford brand or value-added products such as smoked fish.

There remain a dizzying number of critical details to work out, including, eventually, a position on marine reserves. Local fishermen dislike the concept, which would restrict fishing in certain areas. But environmentalists and government officials hope that POORT will enable local fishermen to participate in management decisions and to buy into the reserve idea. While Cobb says she knows the team will ultimately have to "confront" whether marine reserves will be a part of their plan, at this point the group is focusing on less contentious issues.

All in all, the Port Orford project is a daunting task. It means taking on not only a legacy of local powerlessness, but also overcoming the foreign competition fostered by globalization. Seventy-seven percent of all fish consumed in the U.S. are imported, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Perhaps the $64,000 question forPort Orford fishermen is why they should be trusted to manage the sea, after decades spent pillaging it. Peter Shelley, the vice president of the Maine-based Conservation Law Foundation — which has worked with a similar community-based management effort among Maine lobstermen — says POORT’s approach may offer a solution to the underlying issue driving overfishing. Fishermen in the United States have never been limited to a certain region, he explains; if fishermen overfish salmon in central Oregon, they can buy permits for Alaska or California. And corporations that own big trawl boats care even less about maintaining a local resource.

"If fishermen only fish in their local area, it forces them to think about sustainability, because if they don’t, they’re out of a job," says Shelley. "It’s been proven that large conglomerates (like the big trawl boats or agribusinesses) don’t produce stewardship, because they can leave at any time. In the long term, communities have the right incentive and are in a position to be the best stewards of the resource."

He points to the Maine lobstermen, the only other example of community-based fishery management in the Lower 48. In the past six years, that group has gotten the state Legislature to authorize its management plan, and convinced even environmentalists that it’s worth supporting. It might be a coincidence, but since that effort began, Maine has seen record high levels of lobsters. While a long, uncertain path lies ahead, both the Maine lobstermen and the Port Orford fishermen hope to ignite other, similar efforts up and down the coasts. "These fragile little experiments in responsible sustainable fisheries are the crystals around which reform for fisheries management will come," says Shelley.

For Port Orford locals like Leesa Cobb and Harry Allen, the experiment offers a glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak outlook.

On a clear day, when the wind is kind, Cobb walks among her neighbors down by the port. "We fish in this area every day," she says, "and if we lose this, I’m not sure what a lot of us would go and do. Our commitment doesn’t get much stronger than that. We want to make sure there’s a future here for our entire community."

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Oregon.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Would quotas save the seas, or just big business?

- Wilderness areas for the ocean

- A new breed of marketers gives fishing towns a leg up

Port Orford Ocean Resource Team Leesa Cobb, [email protected], 541-332-5250

Pacific Fishery Management Council, 503-820-2280


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