Working Waterfronts ‘Spring’ to Life

Harbor: Newport, Oregon

Photo: Harbor in Newport, Oregon. Photo via Wikipedia.

After a long and harsh winter, coastal businesses and ports are finally getting their well-welcomed rush of visitors. I was one of those visitors this week, as I went down to talk to my colleagues about the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Despite being a weekday, much to my surprise, Newport, Oregon was bustling with activity.

Fewer coastal towns can define themselves better than Newport as a “working waterfront.” It’s the crowning example of the social change that’s happening in rural Oregon. Historically, people lived in coastal towns to work in extractive industries. After our population grew, along with demand for those natural resources, we were harvesting fish and forests at unsustainable rates. We’ve since, and to some degree, still are, going through the challenges of overharvest, but a lighter touch tourism industry is going strong. Those tourism dollars, at least in Oregon, are driven by the ups and downs of our winter weather patterns.

Visitors were walking the waterfront, viewing the barking sea lions, and asking who has the best clam chowder and what is everyone fishing for. Ice was being transported, sport and commercial fishermen filled the local supply store and, to top it off on my way home, a constant parade of boats headed west for the Thursday sport halibut opener. Everybody was benefiting from the visitors who seemed to embrace that everything was right in the world today.

Given the winter we’ve witnessed this year, the Portland/Metro tourism dollar was spent in the Cascade Mountains instead of our coastal communities. Skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are not my forte, but even the wicked winter weather kept the sportfleet at bay given the ocean conditions we were presented with. During more mild winters, with low snow abundance, coastal communities are abuzz with activity. That was clearly not the case this year.

Now being a fisherman myself, I find it egotistically challenging when I have to buy seafood. My favorite seafood, those beautiful, sweet and luscious pacific pink shrimp, I have no capability of harvesting, and therefore, I buy. Those fishermen work for their money, and I would pay about anything for the season’s first catch. I’ve been finding myself consistently asking seafood retailers, “When are those shrimp coming in? The season opened on April 1st.”

Well, between foul weather, and the bigger issue, a fishermen’s strike for a fair price, I’ve gone without for a month and a half too long. The shrimper’s strike is still on, but I managed to find some “scab shrimp” to satisfy my needs. Now, I can subscribe to fishermen banding together to get their just pay, but don’t get between me and my pink shrimp! That said, I can’t reveal my source, but I did enjoy the most delectable halibut fish and chips one could expect that wasn’t prepared by oneself. I even tolerated the coleslaw! At least I can blame my lack of halibut on rough weather. (See False Start for Flatties.)

So “spring” has more than one meaning for a blog piece. With the last sport halibut opener on hold due to rough weather, the port was quite quiet until this week. The shrimp fishery is about to launch, the next halibut opener looks like a go, and folks seem a bit burned out on skiing and are showing up on the waterfront once again. It was almost hard to get a seat for my halibut lunch! Motels, restaurants and tackle shops have felt the pinch this year, between rough weather, high water and a downturn in salmon and steelhead returns, so it’s high time that our coastal communities start to pop. When you see all the hustle going on and the cash registers ringing, it’s a clear indication that you have a viable and working waterfront. Why would we want to change that?

But, there’s always got to be some monkey wrench thrown into the mix. Yea, I went there. But so did Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana. He’s spearheading HR 2023, and with terms like “alternative management”, you know things are about to go sideways.

If there’s one thing that came out of our conversations with fellow fishermen here on the west coast, it’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization is largely falling under the radar for sport and commercial fishermen on the west coast, but that may need to change.

For more on this bad bit of legislation, go to the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s page on the resolution, but here are the main issues we have with the bill:

The Modern Fish Act inserts too much uncertainty into the fisheries management process by adversely changing catch limits and how they are applied, muddies the waters between state and federal management, and allows political and economic considerations to override science in management decisions. 

H.R. 2023 would undo many of the conservation gains made over the past 10+ years in ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted stocks by removing or loosening the requirement of setting scientifically-based catch limits.

  • Annual catch limits (ACLs) would not be required for stocks where fishing rates are below fishing targets, the very management tools that have ended overfishing in so many fisheries across the U.S. Removing catch limits removes any semblance of conservation and protections against returning to the days of widespread overfishing.

The bill provides new authority to Regional Fishery Management Councils to use “alternative fishery management measures” in recreational fisheries, including alternatives to catch limits.

  • Councils would effectively be exempt from using catch limits in recreational fisheries. While using so-called alternative measures may sound appealing, there is little evidence to support their use as an effective fisheries management approach. Coercing Councils to use alternatives to proven catch limits in recreational fisheries is fraught with peril.

The bill attempts to formalize the inclusion of information from third-parties into fisheries management decisions, particularly from the recreational sector.

  • While laudable and something the Network agrees to conceptually, this bill unfortunately lacks any requirement for the scientific standards and rigor needed for science used in stock assessments and fish surveys. This provision would ultimately do more harm than good, and should be improved with more attention to those challenges.

If there’s any way to slow a working waterfront, it’s to compromise the ability of fish stocks to fully recover. We’re just now realizing the benefits of our sacrifices from the early 90’s. There’s even talk of increasing the lingcod limit to 3 fish per person. Of course before we go exercising all the “interest” we’ve accrued in our bank accounts, let’s make sure we maintain our “principle” so we have these healthy sport and commercial fisheries for future fishermen to enjoy. And if you go messing with my pink shrimp again, we’re going to have words….

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Association of NW Steelheaders.

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