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Oregon’s U.S. lawmakers seek federal help for West Coast seafood industry

Restaurant closures, rising tariffs, imports hurting businesses

By LYNNE TERRY , Oregon Capitol Chronicle
Published: June 11, 2024, 7:43am

Last year, Oregon’s seafood industry got a much-needed boost from the federal government. But it continues to struggle and still needs help.

That’s the message from five Democratic members of Congress from Oregon, who’ve written to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to request aid for West Coast seafood fishermen, processors and distributors. U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Val Hoyle and Andrea Salinas asked USDA Administrator Bruce Summers to again include Oregon seafood in its commodity purchases. Summers oversees the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which buys U.S. products for nationwide food assistance programs.

“Commercial fishing and seafood processing on the West Coast are significant contributors to the nation’s seafood production and agricultural economy,” the lawmakers said. “The industry serves as the economic backbone for numerous small ports and rural coastal communities in Oregon. Fishing activities are deeply ingrained in the local culture and way of life across the Oregon Coast.”

In 2021, the marketing program purchased $16 million of Pacific groundfish, including rockfish, pink shrimp and whiting or hake, a fish that’s popular in Eastern Europe. It increased its purchases to about $30 million in 2022, then last year bought $52 million worth of Pacific groundfish.

But the industry continues to suffer from restaurant closures sparked by the pandemic, and it’s been hit by rising tariffs and a disruption in international trade. The industry also has faced competition from abroad, the lawmakers said.

“An influx of imported species and substitutes from other countries has intensified competition in the domestic market, making it difficult for domestic producers to sell their inventory at desired prices,” the letter said. “Specifically, rockfish and whiting harvesting and production has been subject to changing economic factors such as changes in disposable income, unemployment rates and consumer confidence that have impacted the demand for seafood products, leading to surplus inventory.”

Other fisheries suffer

The groundfish industry is not the only one that’s suffering. West Coast fisheries have felt the effects of climate change and warming ocean waters in recent years, and toxins have caused the Oregon Department of Agriculture to enact closures. Just last week, the department closed commercial harvesting of oysters in Tillamook, Netarts and Umpqua bays due to high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, which is a natural marine toxin produced by some species of microscopic algae. The poison has also closed all razor clamming, bay clamming and mussel harvesting from the Washington border to California.

Crab harvesting is open, but that industry has also been affected by climate change. Last year, the Dungeness crab season opened late because warm waters sent whales further inland in search of food, causing salmon runs to be closed as well.

Groundfish are plentiful, and Ukraine has been a major market for West Coast whiting, an affordable protein that is less well known in U.S. markets. But the war has curtailed those exports, and exports to Russia have been closed entirely. Industry experts hope that USDA purchases for food assistance programs will help Americans become more acquainted with the fish, which are sustainable and more affordable than many other fish.

The lawmakers said that the USDA’s help has been invaluable.

“These continue to be extremely challenging times, and we cannot overstate the significance of the USDA’s actions to expand procurement programs to include greater quantities” of seafood, they said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.