Remnants of century-old canneries — deteriorating timber pilings that dot the Columbia River — are reminders of the North Coast’s role in the fishing and seafood processing industries.
“There are aspects of it that integrate into the fabric of our communities,” Steve Fick, the owner of Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria, said.
Economically, fishing and seafood processing continue to be driving forces in the region.
State reports show Astoria and Warrenton landed $47.7 million in seafood in 2022 — over a third of the value statewide. In 2020, the region ranked sixth in the nation in fish landed.
According to an analysis by the Port of Astoria, Pier 2 — home to seafood processors Bornstein Seafoods and Da Yang Seafood — contributes more than $100 million to Clatsop County’s economy each year.
But the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, a tourism promotion group, says the coastal economy is leaking money due to a reliance on imported seafood.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the visitors association commissioned a study to look at how the increased use of local seafood could impact the economy.
“I wanted to know exactly why our restaurants couldn’t get seafood,” Marcus Hinz, the executive director of the visitors association, said. “It seemed ridiculous.”
The results showed that about 90% of the seafood sold and served on the Oregon Coast does not originate from the region and is often imported from other countries. In 2021 alone, Oregon imported $105 million worth of seafood, the visitors association found, while much of the locally caught seafood is immediately exported.
Some of the imported seafood is also tied to harmful and illegal fishing practices.
In response to the study, the visitors association launched a “keep local seafood local” campaign. Equipped with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the group created the Ocean Cluster Initiative, which seeks to boost economic and environmental value from locally-caught seafood.
“Our position is, look, planes are flying out with our seafood and planes are flying in with the seafood we are selling,” Hinz said. “Meanwhile, the ocean is dying from carbon. That’s madness.”
The study estimates that increasing the consumption of local seafood by 10% would have a substantial impact — about an additional $90 million — to the coastal economy.
While Hinz recognizes the need for exports, he said “we should saturate the Oregon market first. That’s what our goal is.”
The practice of restaurants buying, fileting, storing and serving locally caught seafood continues to become more of a rarity on the coast.
The visitors association envisions developing opportunities for smaller businesses to have pool-buying capabilities and incentivize the business model.
“We’re finding ways to connect entrepreneurs to resources,” Hinz said. “ … We’re slowly moving into the food system supply chain and production world because our restaurants and food stores can’t fix this, because there is nothing to buy.”
The visitors association has talked with public and private organizations about adding needed infrastructure, such as more cold storage, small-scale seafood butchery and distribution systems that better suit local businesses.
They hope to also team with community colleges to create a workforce to help meet those needs.
Bill Hagerup, who owns OleBob’s Seafood Market at Pier 39 in Astoria, credited the efforts to encourage keeping seafood local and hopes to see increased awareness among customers.
“I think it’s only through a collective voice that we can make enough impact,” Hagerup said. “Buying local supports two big things — better quality, because it’s fresher and there’s a shorter turnaround from when it’s caught to when it’s consumed.
“ … The second is that these fishers are independent businesspeople … I’d rather support a small businessperson than a giant, multinational corporation.”
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