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Oregon fleet reels in a whopper of a year

2004 was one of the best for the Oregon fishing industry, still recovering from the collapse of trawl fishing five years ago
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Measured in millions of dollars and tons of fish, last year was one of the best on record for Oregon's fishing industry, which is rebounding strongly after the collapse of its former mainstay: trawling for rockfish and other lower-depth species.

Overall, the combined fishing fleet in 2004 landed more than 294 million pounds of seafood, an all-time high and 30 percent more than the average over the past three years. The total value of the catch exceeded $97 million, the highest for seafood landings at Oregon fishing ports in 15 years, according to an analysis commissioned by the state.

"It's hard not be excited about what's going on in the ocean," said Brad Pettinger, a fishing boat owner and administrator of the Oregon Trawl Commission, who described the current abundance of valuable fish stocks as "unbelievable."

For certain species capable of responding to good ocean conditions, a climate-driven shift has boosted productivity since the late 1990s. Salmon have become somewhat more plentiful, and massive populations of sardines and Dungeness crab have led to record-setting catches.

At the same time, market trends have greatly boosted the value of salmon caught off the Oregon coast and in the Columbia River. The average price for chinook salmon caught in the ocean shot above $3 a pound last year, more than a dollar higher than the previous year, driven by increasing consumer demand for wild seafood. Annual revenues for the average fishing vessel have climbed to their highest level in 20 years.

"That's really all very, very good news," said Hans Radtke, the economist whose consulting firm analyzed fishing data for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association.

Fishing ports from Astoria to Brookings are still recovering from the collapse of the once highly profitable trawl fishing industry. In the booming 1980s, Oregon's fleet hauled in as much as 40 percent of the lower-depths catch from Canada to Mexico. The bottom fell out in 2000, when the federal government declared a fishery disaster and enforced severe limits -- including putting a vast area off-limits to trawl nets. Tens of millions of dollars disappeared from fishing towns.

Crab fishing has since become the state's most valuable single-stock fishery. It brings more money to the Oregon coast than the combined groundfish, salmon and shrimp fishing fleets. Crabbers caught 27 million pounds in 2004, up from 10 million pounds in 2001.

Commercial fishing added about $342 million to the state's economy, when seafood processing, sales, and other jobs are included -- a level not attained since 1988. The total represents less than 1 percent of the state's earned income, but about 7 percent of earned income in coastal towns.

In a note of caution, Radtke said some booming sectors -- Dungeness crab in particular -- have a history of downturns as sharp as the recent upturns. About one-third of the value in 2004 would disappear if salmon, crab and sardine landings were at levels seen in typical downturns.

"Dungeness crab could collapse," Radtke said. "It's been so good for so long, I can't see how it can stay that way." He and co-author Shannon Davis said increased prices for crab could offset a potential decline in catch later this year.

The outlook for salmon is good overall but limited by a troubled run of Klamath River fall chinook this year. Regulators are likely to reduce ocean fishing days by about 50 percent for a large swath of the Oregon and California coasts to avoid overfishing Klamath salmon. Prices should remain at last year's high level, the economists predict.

Groundfish catches, cut by regulation to less than one-fourth of levels typical in the early 1990s, aren't likely to change. Plans for rebuilding the severely depleted rockfish to levels considered stable span decades, on the order of 70 to 100 years in some cases.

Richard Young, a former trawler who is now harbormaster and chief executive of the port at Crescent City, Calif., said people who have survived in the West Coast fishing business are showing flexibility and the ability to take advantage of what opportunities the sea may offer.

"These guys change gear all the time, move around to different waters, and go after different fish," Young said. "For the people with the right mix of permits, and participating in the right fisheries, it's been very successful."

Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073; joerojas@news.oregonian.com

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