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Raised Voices

Competition for space in the ocean — an oxymoron in an environment defined by its seemingly limitless expanse — poses new concerns along the West Coast.

“Fishermen are an extremely curious group. That’s their nature. And they have a hell of a lot of knowledge,” says Jeff Feldner (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Fishing is hard enough. The weather, changing ocean conditions and the fickleness of fish make it tough to track your quarry let alone catch them. Now competition for space in the ocean — an oxymoron in an environment defined by its seemingly limitless expanse — poses new concerns along the West Coast. In the future, fishermen will jostle with wave energy parks, marine reserves and aquaculture for space to troll for shrimp, drop crab pots or cast lines for rockfish.

Jeff Feldner knows what’s at stake: individual livelihoods, coastal communities and the resources that support them. The Newport-based Oregon Sea Grant Extension educator bought his first fishing boat in 1973. A few years earlier, on the lookout for a career change (he has a chemical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota), he had come to Newport at the invitation of a salmon fisherman. After a day at sea, he was hooked. “I‘ve been fishing forever,” he says, as though life began the moment he crossed the Yaquina River Bar into the Pacific.

Feldner still fishes part-time, processes his catch in a cooperatively owned South Beach packing plant and tests consumer response to new marketing methods (see how researchers are creating the basis for a sustainable seafood industry at Pacific Fish Trax). He has always kept an eye on the bigger issues that define the industry. Tensions over gear restrictions, by-catch (the non-targeted fish that come up in nets) and closed seasons drove him to serve a nine-year stint on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Now, he is one of 15 Sea Grant specialists and educators from Brookings to Astoria, who work with individuals and with community organizations to address coastal issues through dialog and collaborative science.

“We are the go-between between the seafood industry and fishery science or fishery management,” says Feldner. He and his Sea Grant colleagues Kaety Hildenbrand, Flaxen Conway, Jamie Doyle and others help community groups participate in decision-making processes on topics such as marine reserves and wave energy. In 2010, they helped facilitate a conference among scientists and the fishing industry on another contentious topic, off-shore aquaculture. They are addressing invasive species that upset coastal ecosystems and hazards such as eroding shorelines and tsunami risks.

“Sea Grant Extension distinguishes itself in public engagement,” says Dave Hansen, Extension program leader based in Corvallis. “The marine reserves process is a good example, where, in a pretty hot political and emotional situation, we tried to be the convener that everybody could trust, that didn’t have a secret agenda.”

In 2008, Feldner and former Sea Grant Extension agent Ginny Goblirsch coordinated a series of eight coast-wide “listening and learning” sessions on marine reserves. “When the process ended, the governor changed course,” says Feldner, “slowed down the process,  basically said it was going to take at least another two years, and put in place a process to ensure more community based input – essentially moving more toward a bottom-up process rather than a top-down one.”

Oregon’s tradition of strong community participation in resource management has drawn national attention, says Hansen, who came to Sea Grant in 2010 from Delaware. “There is a tremendous amount of community interest in decisions here. Nothing just slides through,” he adds. “People seem to have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on.”

And new developments in science and technology will continue to fuel that interest. Tomorrow’s fishermen will have access to more accurate information about fish stocks, ocean conditions and markets, says Feldner. They’ll be able to harvest more efficiently, protect threatened species and offer consumers a high-quality local product at the same time. “There’s nothing static in fishing,” he says.


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By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.