The Port of Astoria has pulled back for now on seafood landing fees on Pier 2 processors, facing criticism from the seafood industry and uncertainty over how to measure or levy the fees.
The Port Commission had scheduled a vote in January on $2 per ton worth of seafood landing fees for wharfage and other services, but canceled the vote shortly before the meeting.
The fees could have brought in an estimated $150,000 a year to help maintain the deteriorating west side of Pier 2, where processors take in more than 100 million pounds of seafood each year.
Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, said he realized soon before the meeting that he was not prepared to answer the questions fishermen and processors had about the specifics and fairness of the fees.
“I know it’s premature,” he said. “We as a port are not ready to do this.”
Port staff have estimated nearly $7 million in deferred maintenance on Pier 2, where the majority of seafood processing takes place in Astoria. The agency has long struggled to find funding for more than basic operations.
The Port considered two fees: $1 per ton to support wharfage, and another $1 per ton for services Knight said are related to keeping the docks clean, sampling for stormwater, permitting with the state and general repairs.
“There’s just a general wear and tear for the dock itself,” he said. “All of that cargo and the vessels tying up to it, and all the vehicles, they all cause wear and tear on the docks.”
The Port, already in dire financial straits, faces the potential of declining log ship revenue during a protracted trade war between the U.S. and China, a primary buyer. The agency also recently lost a $1.5 million state infrastructure grant originally secured to help fix the west side of Pier 2.
Fishermen and processors have bristled at the additional charges as the latest in a mountain of fees that threaten their thin margins and could lead some to leave the Port.
The most vocal has been Andrew Bornstein, co-owner of Bornstein Seafoods. The processor has spaces at the foot of Pier 1 and in the Pier 2 warehouse. At a recent Port Commission meeting, Bornstein pointed out what he called the irony of federal tariffs damaging the Port’s log business while the agency looks at additional fees that could damage fishing.
“Whatever analysis you’re looking at that tariffs may bring X dollars, I can promise you it’s going to be less,” he said. “Fish will move, and your tenants can move.”
The new fees would mark Astoria as unfriendly to the fishing industry and make it difficult for Bornstein Seafoods to attract boats, Bornstein said.
Chih Yuan Wang, president and CEO of Da Yang Seafood, said imposing the fees wouldn’t be fair considering the money tenants already have to invest to improve their warehouses. Da Yang has paid for dock work and utilities in its portion of the Pier 2 seafood plant.
The seafood industry has been in tough times since 2005, with the number of major processors at the Port dwindling from five to two, Wang said.
“There is limited supply of raw material and bottom-line issues with the business,” he said. “I think any tariff would discourage landing (and) as a result increase cost for business and therefore (worse) results for all parties.”
The Port had reached out to others along the West Coast between Newport and Seattle, but was not able to glean much useful information, Knight said. What was clear was that no other regional port charged landing fees directly on processors, although Knight said Newport, another large fishing port, has considered them.
Kent Gibson, the commercial harbor master in Newport, said the port has talked about additional seafood landing fees over the years as a way to bring in extra revenue to help address millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance.
“I think it would be some extra income to the port,” he said. “The fishermen never like it, and it’s really something hard to track, unless you get landing tickets from the state.”
But unlike Astoria, the majority of Newport’s processors are off port property, aside from a smaller operation run by Pacific Seafoods. Newport does charge fees on the dock for hoists, forklifts and other services.
Teri Dresler, interim general manager at the port in Newport, said the agency has brainstormed and spoken with tenants about additional landing fees and how to place the money in specific accounts for projects that benefit the fishing fleet.
“Folks seemed open to the concept,” she said. “We need to do some research, come back with a specific set of fees.
“We’re always worried about pricing people out of our moorage, so we’re very thoughtful as we go through the process,” she said.
Mark Landauer, executive director of the Oregon Public Ports Association, said decaying infrastructure is the biggest issue facing the state’s 23 public ports. Agencies have had to get creative in creating additional revenue, from public-private partnerships to several ports along the Oregon Coast operating RV parks.
“It’s one means to an end,” Landauer said. “It can produce new revenue for a port that can theoretically put that money toward delayed or defrayed maintenance.”
Knight said it will take Port staff time to internally reach out to more ports, research the ramifications of seafood landing fees and bring back a workable proposal that will withstand criticism.
“It’s not indefinite,” he said about the hiatus regarding potential new fees. “But I think I’m going to need a couple months to work these issues through.”