Astoria's sardine industry is growing, along with the market for the North Coast's oil-rich product.

This year, all three of the fish processors operating in the Port of Astoria's Pier 2 warehouse are expanding their operations to cash in on a burgeoning international sardine food market.

Come mid-June, the ocean waters off the North Coast are rife with these 5- to 9-inch fish, which for the last several years have been landed in Astoria and sold as bait for the Japanese longline tuna fishery.

But tuna aren't the only ones hungry for the schools of hearty sardines off the Oregon and Washington coasts. Consumers in Asia are increasingly providing a food market for sardines caught in the Columbia River plume. To process the fish for the overseas markets, Astoria's West Bay Marketing, Da Yang Seafoods and Astoria Pacific Seafoods are all adding sardine processing machines to their facilities. All three anticipate bringing in more product, processing more fish and hiring more workers when the catch comes in next month.

Several other local sardine processors have undergone similar expansions in recent years, adapting to new marketing opportunities as the once experimental sardine fishery proved itself to be a worthwhile investment.

New rules support growthFishery managers have helped pave the way for expansion in the local sardine industry by changing the seasonal guidelines to give Oregon and Washington fishers access to more fish during the four-month fishery.

Oregon's sardine industry was reborn in 1999 when West Coast fish stocks rebounded after 60 years of decline. To support initial interest in harvesting the product, the state launched a developmental sardine fishery with

three permitted fishing vessels. Sardines caught off the Oregon and Washington coasts have increasingly found buyers in Japan, where a depleted sardine fishery has

left the market open to American product. By 2002, there were 16 sardine fishing vessels operating in Oregon; by 2005 there were 20.

Of the 99 million pounds of sardines caught by Oregon vessels in 2005, 99 percent was landed in Astoria.

Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife gave the sardine fishery a long-term stamp of approval and bumped up the number of permits from 20 to 26, all of which were claimed by boats in Astoria, Warrenton or southwest Washington.

New rules for sardine fishers starting in 2006 allow uncaught sardine quota to roll over seasonally from California to Oregon and Washington, where fisheries start later in the year as schools swim north.

The new guidelines have "evened the playing field" for North Coast fishers, allowing them to access the fish California fishers aren't catching, according to Brett Weidoff, sardine project manager for ODFW.

Although the fishery includes the entire Oregon and Washington coasts, he said, "all the activity is just off the Columbia River - north and south of the river's mouth."

Local processors respond Dana Ferguson, plant manager at West Bay Marketing, said abundant sardines stocks and the market for them have offered his company opportunities for growth in recent years. West Bay once focused on supplying the overseas tuna fleet but has slowly been tailoring more product for the Asian food market. In a $1.5 million expansion this year, West Bay is increasing its processing space inside the Pier 2 warehouse, adding freezer space and automated heading and gutting machines that cut 250 fish per minute.

"If everything goes in the direction we expect it to, we'll continue to expand," said Ferguson. "There's room to grow."

Rick Morehouse, chief engineer for Da Yang Seafoods, said his company is effectively doubling the existing freezer space and sardine processing equipment this year and has added a mezzanine level to its Pier 2 facility to make room.

Like West Bay, Da Yang operates under a parent company in Taiwan. Both are now looking to tap high-end food markets for Japanese butterfly filleted sardines. Next door on Pier 2, the Astoria Pacific Seafoods plant is adding its own installation of sardine processing machines.

Jay Bornstein, co-owner of Astoria Pacific Seafoods with Darrell Kapp of Bellingham, Wash., said his company is making a "significant investment in equipment, people and additional product" this year in a move that will add more value to the fish "on this side of the ocean" and improve access to Asian markets.

"You have to adapt the fish to the market, adapt to where you can sell," said Bornstein. "We've been selling into food already, this is just additional manufacturing here versus overseas."

The company is also replacing one of its boats with a bigger fishing vessel this year, looking to increase the volume of fish it brings in by 20-25 percent.

Bigger profits for northern fishSam Herrick, an economist with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the Oregon and Washington sardine processors have capitalized on the larger sardines found in northern waters. The sardines off the mouth of the Columbia draw higher prices than the smaller fish caught off the coast of California, he said, and companies invested in the fishery have pushed for a bigger cut of the West Coast sardine allocation and have sought out buyers for their product.

"That sector seems to be pretty aggressive in terms of developing new markets for their sardines," he said. "The Pacific Northwest created a market for sardines for human consumption in Japan - for sashimi-grade sardine, essentially. ... They're really pretty big fish, and they're high in oil content."

According to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the amount of sardines sold for human consumption is quickly growing in Japan and in other countries as food markets are developed and the longline tuna bait markets become saturated. This year, the coastwide allocation for sardines is the highest it's ever been, with 152,650 metric tons available, compared with 118,936 metric tons in 2006.

"The Pacific Northwest can harvest larger fish than the California area, and now they can chew into more of the harvest guideline," said Weidoff. "I think what guys are doing is trying to develop more markets. There's all kinds of markets for sardines continually looking to diversify and utilize large and small fish."

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