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Environment, Energy and Transportation
Many rural communities in the Northwest are struggling with changes that have weakened or even eliminated the natural resource-based economy that sustained them for decades.In this series, JPR's Liam Moriarty takes a look at what's being done in Port Orford, on Oregon's south coast. There, an energetic group of locals is working to create new approaches to community development that they hope will help their town get back on its feet.

At The Water's Edge: Embracing Science and Education As Key Local Industries

Many rural Oregon towns share the same problems; the natural resources they traditionally based their economies on no longer support them, and isolation and limited funds often make solutions hard to come by. But how these communities grapple with these changes can vary.

JPR’s Liam Moriarty takes us to Port Orford, on the state’s south coast, to see how people in one fishing town are working to carve out a potential future.

About two miles south of Port Orford -- and less than a mile off the beach -- is a cluster of rocks and reefs. Sitting in the cabin of his fishing boat on the dock at the Port of Port Orford, Orion Ashdown says the area known as Redfish Rocks has been a favorite fishing ground.

“That’s a good little spot there,” he says. “I mean, it has everything that we target. And it’s actually less windy there, so it has its advantages.”

For years, the abundance of species there drew Ashdown and other Port Orford commercial fishermen. But that ended in 2012, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closed what had by then become the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. Now, the only fishing done there is for scientific research …

Leesa Cobb, with the non-profit Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, says the idea of closing a productive local fishing ground was at best, counterintuitive …

“I cannot say that everyone ran towards it screaming, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!”

But, she says, the fishermen who formed the Ocean Resource Team understood that Redfish Rocks is an ideal place to do science to better understand how the fish live and how fishing impacts them. And that that’s vital knowledge to ensure the long-term viability of the local fishery.

Cobb says the fishermen also saw the reserve had other potential benefits.

"Quite frankly, the marine reserve is a savings account,” she says. “It’s a place that’s set aside to help provide resilience for our community if fish stocks crash.”

Tom Calvanese is a marine biologist with Oregon State University. When he first came to Redfish Rocks, he says …

“ … it was pretty clear right away that it was an ideal place to study rockfish in the context of what was to become a protected area.”

Calvanese’s research since the closure has added important understanding to how the fish in that area behave. And a number of local fishermen provided important help in designing and executing his research, some as volunteers, some as paid contractors. Without their help – and their local knowledge, Calvanese says, he couldn’t have even begun the project.

That collaborative approach has also served Calvanese well as manager of OSU’s marine field station in Port Orford. Set up in a former bed and breakfast right above the beach, the facility houses research, hosts scientific gatherings and sponsors educational projects, many of which are focused on the marine sanctuary. Calvanese says the field station’s outreach to the local schools is already paying off.

“I’m now seeing some of these young people going off to university now, who were in those classes where I was bringing in marine creatures and showing them that, and talking about this acoustic telemetry project and about science. And I feel like that’s already a win,” he says.

Calvanese says OSU sees the field station as a hub for information and resources related to the ocean. But the station’s mission is broader than that.

“It is about research, yes. But it’s also about education,” he says. “It’s also about communication. It’s also about collaboration. It’s about resilience, it’s about economic opportunities for the community.”

For instance, he says, OSU’s Oregon Sea Grant program recently hired a full-time position to look at ways to foster sustainable tourism focused on an ocean stewardship ethic.

Lisa Cobb says the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team knows that having a prosperous local fishing economy in the 21st Century will take more than just hard-working fishermen.

“You can benefit the economy by having a science center that reaches out to kids in your own school but brings people in to the motels and restaurants and other things for the meetings and the symposiums and actual on-the-water science, so we’re mindful of how it all fits together.”

And, she says, that so many in Port Orford are willing to look beyond the traditional ways of doing things to form new connections and collaborations is what gives her a sense of hope for her community’s future.