Husing says fishing industry can take action to survive hard timesLike Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the West Coast fishing industry are greatly exaggerated, the Clatsop Economic Development Council heard Tuesday.

Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, said fishers, processors and others in the industry can weather the growing restrictions on groundfish harvests by diversifying into other fisheries, aggressively marketing their products and pushing for more research into the actual health of groundfish stocks.

"My message is, 'Don't give up on the fishing industry,'" he said. "There are a lot of other species out there."

Diversification into shrimp, crab, sardines, whiting and other stocks can provide other markets for fishers dealing with government limits on groundfish harvests, including the ruling two weeks ago by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council blocking fishers from depths between 100 and 250 fathoms in the 2003 season in an effort to protect nine species listed as overfished.

And other opportunities exist, Husing said. One southern Oregon operator reached a deal with a Korean company to buy some of his catch. And other suppliers see the sharp drop in prices of overnight freight carriers as opening up new opportunities to sell their product fresh around the country.

Husing agreed with some audience members that cuts in the groundfish harvest will hurt processors, who rely on the fishery for a year-round supply between the seasonal species.

"I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture through this transition," he said. "I don't know what the answer is for a processor who has built his business model around a year-round supply."

The association, which represents cities, counties, port districts and other coastal entities, is also trying to push for more research into the state of groundfish stocks, which many in the industry say are far stronger than estimated.

There's a dramatic difference in the very real declines he saw in New England fisheries in the late 1970s, where he went to college and worked two summers on a fishing boat, and the situation on the West Coast, where catches of most stocks still seem to be abundant, he said.

"Some stocks are a little less, but I don't believe there has been as precipitous a decline as we are hearing from (the National Marine Fisheries Service)," he said.

It was the collapse of East Coast fisheries that prompted new federal legislation, including the 1996 rewrite of the Magnuson fisheries act that made conservation the top priority to the exclusion of the fishing industry and the communities who depend on it, Husing said.

In the absence of adequate data about the state of groundfish stocks, agency scientists almost always go with the most conservative estimates when it comes to setting fishing limits, he said.

The regulatory process is also under heavy pressure from environmental interests, whose representatives often outnumber industry people at agency hearings and who have injected a sense of crisis into the fisheries debate that isn't warranted, Husing said. That's especially the case in the push for no-fishing marine reserves, which have become the "life cause" for some conservationists, he said.

"It's unbelievably frustrating," he said.

But the fishing industry, with its traditional divisions and rivalries between the different fisheries, has not made enough of an effort to tell its side the story, he said.

Gayle Parker, outreach peer for the Groundfish Disaster program, said the entire infrastructure supporting the groundfish industry, including suppliers, cannery workers and others, are already feeling the effects of the cutbacks.

But trawler owner Tom Morrison told Husing he's not ready to abandon his livelihood yet. Despite the restrictions and ominous trends, he and others who harvest groundfish are staying afloat and are optimistic they can continue.

"If you're in business for yourself, you do what you need to do to survive," he said.

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