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Know the West

Why one Coloradan cares about fish quotas


When the young woman in the apron and the thick rubber gloves handed me that bag of oysters, I knew they'd be good. We'd been hanging out on the beach right next to where those oysters were farmed, and they were so fresh, their rough shells were still covered with mussels and barnacles. A good part of my family's week in and around Reedsport, Ore., this June involved this sort of thing: searching for fresh local seafood for our evening meal.

Fish vendors proudly answered all of our drylanders' questions, selling us sturgeon, snapper and other delicacies for prices unheard of inland. But there was one question we learned to stop asking: "Is that salmon local?" Just asking it made the vendors grumpy. Because it wasn't local. It's all from Alaska nowadays. The commercial salmon fisheries off the Oregon and California coast are off-limits, thanks to dismal fish numbers in recent years.

"They've really got us over a barrel on this one," said a fish vendor in Charleston. I quickly understood. Forcing Oregonians to import salmon is like, say, telling the Homestead Market (which is right next door to High Country News in Paonia) to stop selling its homegrown Colorado beef, or requiring our fruit stands to use cherries from Washington during the Cherry Days festival. It's more than a blow to the economy. It hits the local culture right in the heart.

Fishing is probably one of the least significant threats to salmon -- dams and diversions and warm water temperatures take a much greater toll. But for other delicacies of the sea, overfishing is the problem. And so fisheries managers are trying out new methods to save fish (and fishermen) from the reckless race to harvest the bounty of the sea, in hopes of avoiding outright fishing bans.

While I was in Oregon, it dawned on me that the ocean is a gigantic chunk of common domain, not unlike the public lands HCN covers. And what happens to fisheries has a direct impact on coastal communities, just as management of public lands affects nearby towns.

Matt Jenkins takes a look at a new wave of fisheries management -- known as "catch shares" -- in this issue. Though he peers at catch shares through the lens of Bering Sea crabbing, what he learns is relevant to fisheries everywhere. In 2011, a catch-share program will go into effect on the lower West Coast, and more are on their way.

Eating Alaskan salmon on the Oregon coast is a bit heartbreaking, and the salmon there may already be too far gone for catch shares to help. Still, there's other good local fish to be had, at least at the moment. We can only hope that innovative fisheries management will keep them around. Because there's nothing like snacking on the local bounty. Those warm and salty oysters, grilled in the shell, just slid across my tongue.