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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: With The Timber Economy Gone, Port Orford Looks To The Sea

Recent decades have not been kind to rural Oregon. As natural resources come under increased pressure -- and the economy becomes more globalized -- small, resource-based communities have been hit hard. Port Orford, on Oregon’s south coast, is no exception.

But now, some people in Port Orford are trying innovative approaches to adapting traditional livelihoods to the new reality so their town can survive – and even thrive – in the 21st Century. 

Aaron Longton is shoveling crushed ice and tossing gutted halibut into a hot-tub-sized plastic tote.

Longton is co-founder of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, a community-supported fishery. Based on the community-supported agriculture -- or CSA -- model, the company sells shares to members in more than a dozen southern Oregon communities. Members cash in those shares to buy the fish Longton and other Port Orford small-boat fishermen catch.

Longton fishes with hook and line, which he says eliminates much of the waste common with net fisheries.

“Fish come up alive, and fish that we want to discard we can unhook right there and they swim away,” he says.

Port Orford Sustainable Seafood sees its members as ethical consumers who care about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Longton says the company takes the “sustainable” part of its name seriously.

“We value the resource,” he says. “We do our best to engage in conservation. You know, collaborating with science and agencies to make sure that we’re doing things right.”

Port Orford Sustainable Seafood was started in 2009, largely to keep more of the value of the local fishery in local hands. Lyle Keeler is a retired fisherman who sits on the company’s board. Keeler says having a company operated by fishermen has helped weaken the monopoly power  of the corporate fish buyers who traditionally set prices.

“For 20 years before Aaron got here, we were getting 60 cents a pound for deep water reds, which in my opinion is the best eating fish in the ocean,” he says. “Two years after Aaron was here, we were getting a dollar a pound.”

The company also hires locals to process the catch and deliver it, something Keeler says is crucial.

“Port Orford really needs more jobs. Just about  any town in Curry County does, but Port Orford’s really bad because that’s all we have, is commercial fishing,” he says. “Logging’s pretty much out now. That used to be what  we did, lumbermills and logging.”

For decades, timber provided hundreds of family wage jobs to this town of about 1,100 people. But Leesa Cobb says at some point it sank in that this wasn’t just another downturn; the timber jobs weren’t coming back.

“And after a certain period of time, you’re having to figure out what you can do to survive. And survive as a community,” she says.

Cobb grew up in Port Orford. Her dad was a rancher and she married a fisherman.

“We looked around. And for me, I said, ‘What is our greatest asset?’ I mean certainly timber was. But you just look right out your front door and see the ocean.”

Fishing has long been Port Orford’s other traditional economic base. But that’s had its own challenges. Fishery closures meant to save dwindling salmon stocks forced fishermen to branch out into catching other, often less-lucrative kinds of fish. Port Orford is also limited by its geography to small boats under 40 feet, which makes it harder to achieve economies of scale.

In response, Leesa Cobb helped work with fishermen to create the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team. The non-profit group initially lobbied to make fishery management policies more responsive to the needs of fishing communities. Cobb says bureaucratic inertia rendered that effort largely unsuccessful.

Now, the group has turned its energies to creatively re-envisioning ways Port Orford can make its living from the sea. It owns Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, which is a big part of the group’s current efforts.

“Without a doubt, when we started this project it was a triple bottom line project,” Cobb says. “We care about the ecology, the economics and the equity of our fishing community, as so we’re certainly interested in fishing, but we’re also interested in the overall economy of our community. You can benefit your economy by processing your fish in your own town and having jobs.”

The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team has also gotten behind a pair of innovative projects that take a broader view of what the community’s future could look like. More on that, next …