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Oregon Troller view of the 2006 Season as
A boatload of misery
With the season cut by 80 percent, the fishing industry is struggling to
stay above water
By Winston Ross The Register-Guard, June 11, 2006
NEWPORT - Sunlight drapes the docks at South Beach, and a cool north wind
blows the trawler (Troller) into port.
The June II quietly glides sideways to its place at the base of the Carvalho
Fisheries dock, across Yaquina Bay from Newport's Old Town. Jared Reeves
climbs out of the wheelhouse and hops onto the deck. Both skipper and
crewman, 23-year-old Reeves ties his boat off at midship and tosses a line
up to the waiting dock worker.
Finally, the first Chinook salmon fishing trip of the 2006 season is over.
Soon his catch will be counted and weighed and Reeves will cash the first
paycheck he's deposited in a month and a half, his boat's first earnings
It was a lousy trip. Reeves brought in a paltry 37 fish, less than half his
allowable catch and not enough to make the four-day trip profitable. By the
time he settles his fuel bill, writes a rent check, buys some groceries,
repairs his broken-down Ford pickup and makes a payment on his maxed-out
credit cards, the money will be gone.
A rough start to a rough season. Because federal fishery managers lopped the
number of days Reeves can fish by an unprecedented 80 percent and restricted
the number of fish he's allowed to catch per trip to 75 - the first such
limit ever imposed - Reeves will struggle all year.
He will wonder if his father was wrong to persuade him to leave logging and
invest tens of thousands of dollars in this boat and its required permits.
He will put his life in danger each time he steers across the river bar
because he can't afford to hire help. He fishes by himself, racing from the
deck to the wheelhouse so that he can both man his lines and make sure the
boat doesn't hit anything as it cruises on autopilot.
Because there are only a few days available to him to fish, he'll amplify
that danger by staying out in weather that would normally keep the June II
tied to the docks.
"You rock back and forth so hard your lines slack up and the fish pop off,"
Reeves says. "Everybody's pushing the issue on what their boat can handle."
And because this year's salmon season is the most restricted it has ever
been, Reeves says he will barely earn enough to survive. The risk, the toil,
the hard days at sea in bitter winds and rollicking waves won't be worth it.
Not this year, anyway.
"With the stroke of a pen," he grumbles, "they pull it out from under us."
But Jared Reeves says he has no other option. Fishing is what he knows and
Falling farther behind
Just inside a small strip mall near Charleston's boat basin sits another
casualty of the shortened salmon season: Pat Houck, in a faded, sleeveless
T-shirt, grimy sweat pants and baseball cap, his eyes glued to a laptop on
the desk behind the counter of his gift shop, Fat Patrick's.
He's playing Solitaire. It's a way to pass the hours between sparse visits
from occasional tourists. This time of year, Houck says he's lucky to greet
10 potential customers in the 12 hours the store is open. He's luckier still
if any of them actually buy a T-shirt.
What Houck should be doing right now is selling ice to fishermen. But the
51-year-old closed down the ice plant two weeks ago, after 22 years in
business, knowing there's no way he could keep it afloat with the salmon
season shut down along the entire South Coast. He's three months behind on
lease payments to the Port of Charleston. He owes $25,000 for repairs to the
plant after pipes burst four years ago, spraying ammonia all over his face
and arms and landing him in the hospital for 10 days.
Houck has no idea how he'll catch up.
"Salmon is pretty much what I had left," Houck says. "Every winter I've
been falling a little farther behind."
He'd been losing money for the last few years, especially after the federal
government bought half of the groundfish fleet's boats and permits because
there weren't enough fish for the whole fleet. That took a third of Houck's
business. Meanwhile, cheap shrimp imports from Canada put dozens of West
Coast shrimpers out of business, making it even harder for him to keep the
plant in the black.
"I'm mad at the government," Houck says. "They're taking this out on the
Now he runs the gift shop, and watches television. He begins the day with
the news, then "The Price Is Right," then Solitaire, because he doesn't like
"There's only so many times you can vacuum in a day," he says, picking up a
piece of litter off the floor and straightening a pirate flag.
Bad weather, bad luck
Jared Reeves pulls on his rain gear and gloves, moves the hatch cover aside
and hoists up the false floor of the June II's "slush tank," holding a
mixture of ice and seawater, where his catch is stored.
Reeves pulls out the first fish by the gills, a respectable but not great
18-pound Chinook, and lays it gently into the aluminum bucket dock workers
have hoisted on the deck. A damaged fish could drop the price per pound he
negotiated at sea from $5.75 to $2. Now is no time to be slamming salmon
Reeves is light on fish because bad weather at sea drove him back to port,
ending an ill-fated week. A few days before the start of the season, the
axle on his pickup broke as he was driving into Charleston, nearly sending
the vehicle into a row of houses and ripping out the entire back end of the
truck. Because Reeves has no money to repair it, the pickup is sitting at a
Not long after he got on the water to head to Newport a week ago Saturday,
the pump that cools the engine on his boat malfunctioned and overheated,
forcing him to shut down and work on repairs. He wound up making a
mortifying call to the U.S. Coast Guard, asking for a tow into Florence.
In port, Coast Guard crewmen boarded Reeves' boat and cited him for having
old flares. There's no ice plant and no marine store in Florence anymore, so
Reeves was lucky to find a few working flares at a local sporting goods
shop. He persuaded a buddy to drive in from Eugene and scuba dive in the
bottom of the boat to unclog some debris, because he couldn't find or afford
to hire someone local. He returned to sea with three hours of sleep and
When Reeves finally got to the fishing grounds, he found them crowded with
other trawlers, increasing the risk that he'd crash into one of them and
diminishing his chances of catching the 75-fish limit.
"Pretty much everybody that's participating is right here on this one spot
where I'm at," he says via cell phone from the sea. "Everybody's going
through the same groove."
Puzzles and puttering
Back on shore, 74-year-old Kurt Russell enjoys one of the most sublime
views in the Charleston Marina.
With a mostly idled salmon fleet, the owner of the boat basin's fuel dock
has plenty of time to do just that these days. Like Houck, Russell lost a
good piece of his business after the groundfish buyback. It's afternoon
already and he's only had one customer so far, a boat that bought 120
gallons of diesel fuel. On a good day, he sells 3,000 gallons.
In a grimy "United We Stand" sweat shirt and jeans and black loafers,
Russell spends most of his time where he is right now: in a chair, gazing
out the window or at the History Channel on TV. Sometimes he flips through a
Guinness Book of World Records, or helps his daughter work on puzzles. There
are 40 different varieties of puzzles in the back room, and the pair have
put them all together at least once. Every now and then he'll get up and
putter around the fuel dock, keeping up with repairs or transferring oil
from one place to another.
Fishermen buy fuel from Russell on credit. He is owed $200,000, which
forces him to do two things he hates: delay payments to his supplier and cut
off trollers that get too far behind on their debts. If they can't buy fuel
on credit, their boats will stay tied to the docks.
"When we first bought the dock in 1999, we were paying $5,000 for a load of
fuel," Russell says. "Now it's $25,000 for the same truckload."
The hard part is deciding whose credit to yank and for how long. He knows
he could shut down most of the fleet if he didn't keep the accounts open,
which ultimately would put so many boats out of business that it would come
back to bite him.
"I know most of these guys pretty good," he says. "You don't want to shut
So Russell looks out the window and waits, hoping things get better.
"The wolf at the door"
The dock hands have checked all of Jared Reeves' fish and there's only one
potential "No. 2," which could mean a lower price because it has some old
scars from the teeth of a sea lion. But the wounds have healed and the fish
can still sell whole, so Reeves will get the full bartering price for his
He's lucky to get $5.75. With the majority of the fleet coming to port at
the same time, a once-starved market for wild Oregon Chinook salmon has
suddenly been flooded. The week before, trollers were getting $7 and $8 a
pound. In a few days, the price could drop to $4 or even $3.
Blame the short season for that glut, too. With only four days at a time to
fish and only a few trips to make this year, the fleet will be crowding the
waters every chance they get, with all the boats leaving and coming back to
port at once.
You can feel the devastation in the air in Charleston these days, says the
port's manager, Don Yost.
"Sadness. Fear and sadness. These guys are some of them afraid of the wolf
at the door," he says. "It is a quiet disaster. It affects a hundred boat
owners here. It's a major hit for us."
As for Reeves, he wants to know when he can collect his check from this
first trip out.
"These guys told me I'd get a check next week," he says to Leonard Van
Curler, who runs the Carvalho Fisheries dock and is brokering the sale
between Reeves and the skippers of nine other boats, and a bigger buyer.
But Van Curler has welcome news: The check should arrive via Fed-Ex by
Friday, in time for him to get it in the bank and pay some bills by today,
the start of his next trip.
Maybe this time he'll turn a profit.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM Pacific
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