U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley led a push for the money to help families along the coast that depend on fisheries to survive

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

By:  Lynne Terry

Oregon Capital Chronical

The struggling fisheries industry on the West Coast is getting a much-needed financial boost from the federal government. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it will buy $52 million worth of Pacific groundfish for its food assistance programs. The money is the USDA’s third and biggest investment in the fish in as many years.

“This is very big news for our industry,” Yelena Nowak, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, told the Capital Chronicle. “Hopefully, it will help us stabilize a bit.”

In 2021, the USDA purchased $16 million of groundfish, specifically rockfish, pink shrimp and whiting or hake, a fish that’s popular in Eastern Europe. It increased that to up to just over $30 million the following year. This year’s $52 million surpasses the $50 million in wholesale sales for those fish last year, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which tracks fisheries in Oregon.

Coastal towns depend on fisheries to survive, with the industry providing income for a network of people, from fishermen and processors to distributors and boat specialists. But in recent years, they’ve been hit by the effects of climate change that decrease fish counts and force closures. Two recent examples, according to Glen Spain, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations: Salmon runs have been closed, and the Dungeness crab season opened late this year due to warm waters sending whales further inland in search of food.

“We’ve had a series of disasters and near disasters because of hot water, heat waves and ocean heat waves,” Spain said. “It’s extremely dangerous to see people out there trying to deal with this. It can be life-threatening to humans as well as whales.”

Groundfish are more plentiful, but they’ve had their own problems: restaurant closures during the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and export tariffs, said Lori Steele, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. 

Rockfish are sold in grocery stores, but Ukraine has been a major market for West Coast whiting. The war has curtailed those exports, and exports to Russia are closed entirely, Steele said. Export tariffs in the European Union on pink shrimp are so high that the West Coast can’t compete.

“We can’t even get into the European market,” Steele said.

Pink shrimp prices have plummeted, and the industry is now saddled with an oversupply, a problem that hurts hundreds of people along the coast. According to Erik Knoder, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department, about 400 fishermen in the state are involved in catching rockfish, whiting and pink shrimp. Worried about them having trouble making ends meet this year without more federal assistance, Steele has been working with the state’s congressional delegation to push for more USDA assistance.

In February, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon spearheaded a letter with other West Coast congressional members, including Sen. Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Val Hoyle, Lori Chavez-DeRemer and Andrea Salinas in Oregon, that asked the USDA to support West Coast fishermen and processors. The industry has been largely left out of agency commodity purchases in the past.

“Commercial fishing and seafood processing on the West Coast are significant contributors to U.S. seafood production and also key parts of our country’s agricultural and food production system as a whole,” the lawmakers said. “Perhaps more importantly, the industries are the economic and community backbone of the small ports and vibrant rural towns that dot our Pacific shorelines.”

Last week the lawmakers welcomed USDA’s decision to invest $52 million in the sector, while industry experts thanked the lawmakers. 

“We’re really grateful to our congressional delegation for pushing this forward,” Nowak said.

Fishermen and companies along the West Coast will have to compete for the money.

“It’s a competitive bidding process,” Steele said. 

The fish will end up on American tables through various USDA food assistance programs, she said. Besides pulling in money, industry experts hope that U.S. consumers will become more familiar with the fish, especially whiting, which Americans are not familiar with.

“It’s an extremely affordable protein,” Nowak said. “It’s perfect for schools, for example, because of its price point. It’s sustainable; it’s healthy; it’s an excellent source of protein and other micronutrients.”

As a next step, the USDA will survey its food assistance and distribution networks to figure out what to buy, though it is committed to using half the money to buy pink shrimp, Steele said. She expects the agency to solicit bids in the next few months.

“It takes awhile for the details to be worked out,” Steele said.