A panel of state and federal regulators meets today in San Francisco to consider closing the entire continental shelf to commercial trawling next year. In doing so, they'll decide the fate of communities like Warrenton.
Warrenton and nearby Astoria are home to 46 trawlers, the largest fleet in Oregon. Most of the rust-streaked boats are lined up in berths in the Warrenton Boat Basin.
The trawlers harvest fish by dragging nets across the ocean floor. Allowed harvests of bottomfish, a group of species targeted by trawlers, have dropped by 40 percent in the past six years, sharply cutting the annual incomes of West Coast trawlers.
But now the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has scheduled a four-day meeting, is ready to close vast areas of the ocean to commercial trawling. An advisory panel to the council has recommended prohibiting all trawling from depths of 300 feet to 900 feet. That's the region frequented by three species the federal government has declared overfished: bocaccio, canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish.
These species typically show up as snapper in the grocery case.
The advisory panel said it might also be necessary to prohibit trawling to a depth 2,100 feet, to protect a fourth overfished species, darkblotched rockfish.
Disbelief washes through Warrenton and Astoria, battered by salmon declines and restrictions and increasingly dependent on trawling.
It was once possible to make $100,000 a year or more as a trawler skipper, perhaps half that as a deckhand. Now some trawl skippers say they will be lucky to make $35,000 this year.
And no one knows what will happen next year.
"Everybody's stunned," said Dan Parker, 52, aboard his 88-foot trawler, the Sea Eagle, docked with 26 other trawlers last week in the Warrenton harbor. "Nobody can believe what happened over the last five years. What's about to happen is incomprehensible."
Parker paid $475,000 in 1987 to build his boat, complete with a spacious wood-paneled galley that gives his vessel the feel of a luxury yacht. Boats such as his, he said, sold for $1 million in the early 1990s. Recently, he said, a boat similar to the Sea Eagle sold for $275,000.
Many trawl skippers don't know whether they will be able to make a living at all. Among them is Gary Smith, 46, the skipper of the 60-foot Pacific Conquest.
"It doesn't look good," he said, repairing a net on a parking lot near the Warrenton docks. "I've been fishing all my life, and now I've got to start thinking of doing something else. I'm wondering what else I can do."
Tom Morrison, skipper of the 65-foot Pacific Queen, caught 30,998 pounds of bottomfish on a four-day fishing trip ending Friday. The catch, mostly dover and petrale sole, with some yellowtail and other rockfish, was worth about $14,000 at Pacific Coast Seafoods, a processing plant in Warrenton.
That sounds good, until you learn that the harvest limits now in place mean Morrison can only make one such trip a month. Morrison's trawler delivered $400,000 worth of fish each year in the early 1990s; he says the current limits mean he'll be lucky to gross $180,000 this year.
"They've been whittling away and whittling away," Morrison said. "They can only whittle away so much before we're out of business."
Regulators say federal law leaves them no choice: They must issue rules that ensure the recovery of overfished stocks. The problem is that the most depleted stocks travel widely and mingle with more abundant fish. Yelloweye rockfish are so depleted that even if harvests were stopped completely, scientists calculate it would take 96 years for the fish to recover off Oregon and Washington.
"We have to make some hard decisions," said Hans Radtke, chairman of the council. "If I have any advice, it's people need to do everything they can to downsize, cut their costs. That's the only thing they can do if they want to stay in the trawling business."