By Terry Dillman
More seafood, far more value.
That sums up the 2011 season for most Oregon fisheries, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) officials and a consortium of four Oregon seafood commissions.
Nick Furman, director of Seafood Oregon – a consortium featuring the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), Oregon Trawl Commission (OTC), Oregon Salmon Commission (OCS) and Oregon Albacore Commission (OAC) – said the state’s commercial seafood and fishing industry had an outstanding year, in fact the best in 23 years, with overall harvest value exceeding $145 million for all Oregon fisheries.
Both the amounts harvested (285 million pounds of fish and shellfish, up substantially from 216 million pounds in 2010) and dollar value were the best in nearly three decades. But the real key, at least for fishermen’s economic survival, lies in the dollar value.
“We remind fishermen that it’s not the pounds of fish that you take to the bank,” Furman noted. “It’s the dollars you take to the bank.”
The influx gave the state’s struggling coastal communities a much-needed boost, say ODA marketing experts, who have worked diligently for years to promote Oregon seafood in various export markets.
Among them are the researchers with the Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service, Oregon Sea Grant, and Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), the university’s campus for research, education and outreach in marine and coastal sciences located in Newport’s South Beach district. With its annual budget of almost $46 million, 300 university, state and federal employees, and 150,000 visitors to the education outreach and free-choice learning center, HMSC plays a key role in Oregon’s coastal economy.
Much of the impact is in the seafood industry, where research efforts aim to keep seafood harvested off Oregon’s shore fresh, safe, plentiful and sustainable.
For example, food technologists developed a thin edible protective film to coat fish fillets and keep them fresh much longer. OSU researcher Jae Park has helped surimi – low-value fish processed into a high-value seafood product used to imitate crab and scallops – become an international commodity, which has helped revitalize fisheries in Oregon and beyond. And the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI) in Newport supports the commercial fishing industry and coastal communities by providing access to applied research and capital via a non-profit organization led by Executive Director Heather Mann and a nine-member board.
“We believe a knowledgeable industry is a powerful industry,” said Mann. “Listening to and providing seafood industry representatives and businesses with access to credible and accurate information allows them to not only better position themselves competitively, it also allows them to make proactive strategic decisions rather than reactionary choices.”
Among other things, CSI helps preserve seafood-related working waterfronts, offers value-added product development services, and operates the FishTrax program – a pioneer effort that uses an electronic fishing information system to deliver essential information to key markets and consumers.
Fishermen must still harvest and the prices must be right to make their efforts worthwhile.
Marketing experts consider the 2011 numbers even more impressive given the fact that Oregon fisheries are harvesting seafood in a widely recognized sustainable way. Four of those fisheries – Dungeness crab, albacore tuna, pink shrimp and Pacific whiting – have earned certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council, indicating they are well managed and environmentally neutral, thus ensuring sustainable harvests.
Many fishermen say Oregon’s territorial sea is the healthiest they’ve seen in years, perhaps decades.
“While the volume of fish coming in has increased, it hasn’t been at the expense of healthy fisheries and the stocks available,” said Furman. “All this speaks well for the health of the ocean, it speaks well for the management schemes presently in place that ensure we have sustainably-harvested stocks. The result is the increase in pounds of fish harvested and dollar value.”
The $145 million gleaned in 2011 easily bested 2010’s $105 million, and stood about 44 percent above the annual average for the past decade.
Most Oregon fisheries netted higher prices and had higher catches.
Pink shrimp fishermen finished with their best season since 1992, hauling in 48 million pounds of high-grade shrimp with a to-the-fleet value of $24.6 million. While the catch benefitted the fishermen and processors, it also supplied a growing demand for exports, bringing added revenue to coastal communities. With about three months still to go in the season, Dungeness crabbers have already netted $44 million as export demand in Asia boosted ex-vessel prices to “unheard of levels,” reaching a record-high average of $3.37 per pound, easily besting last year’s $2.30 average, said Furman.
“The big story right now is definitely price,” he added. “Oregon is doing something right, and it is represented by healthy stocks, good volume and prices that are going through the roof because of the global economy and worldwide demand for seafood.”
Price also boosted the fortunes of the albacore tuna fishery, which brought in an average haul of 9.5 million pounds, but fetched a 33-year high of $18.7 million as high demand drove market prices sky-high.
Not everyone prospered.
At 2.4 million pounds, salmon landings were well below expectations – even somewhat less than 2010, which was another dismal year for salmon trollers. Prices were slightly higher than 2010, but fishermen said they weren’t high enough to make up for lack of fish.
“Everyone was optimistic, but the fish simply didn’t show up as much as expected,” Furman said. “Last year was the first time in several years that trollers got to fish the Oregon coast for salmon.” This year, he noted, looks more promising, with higher harvest quotas and high fish numbers.
The sardine fishery also dropped, as Oregon landings were well below the norm, bringing a harvest value of $3.2 million – well below the $5.3 million in 2010.
Overall, however, 2011 proved quite profitable for Oregon fisheries ports and coastal communities, and Furman said they’re “seeing evidence of the same level of activity” in 2012.
Terry Dillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org