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News arrow News arrow Local News arrow EFFORTS UNDER WAY TO RETRAIN LOCAL FISHERMEN

EFFORTS UNDER WAY TO RETRAIN LOCAL FISHERMEN Print E-mail
June 11, 2002 11:00 pm

By BRIAN BULLOCK

Robyn King and Bobbi Shinn are both worried about Curry County fishermen.

Not about the risks they take daily going about their work; they're scared about what will happen to them if they find out they can't fish any longer.

King and Shinn are both in the business of getting fishermen into another business. King is an outreach peer in the Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program. Shinn is a program coordinator for the South Coast Business Employment Corporation (SCBEC).

Separately, and sometimes together, they try to help men and women desperate to work in an industry that is sinking in legislative regulations.

Shinn, who will soon add her name to the unemployment statistics of Curry County when her job with SCBEC ends, reported last week at a meeting of area agency representatives that the Groundfish Transitional Income program, which provides financial aid for fishermen getting out of the industry, has served 37 families so far this year.

In 2001, 88 families applied with the program and 73 fishing industry employees were retrained.

Russ Crabtree, Port of Brookings Harbor executive director, said there are approximately 250 people in the area who could be affected by fishing restrictions.

With the possibility of additional regulations in the form of marine reserves looming on the horizon, many more fishermen are seeing the sun set on their livelihoods.

"The fleet in the Port of Brookings Harbor is in a better position than a lot of ports because they aren't over capitalized," Crabtree said. "Most don't owe as much on their boats as other fleets."

Still, the regulations stacking up against fishing limits are beginning to look like an insurmountable wave that will come crashing down on the industry.

"They're slowly choking this county," Shinn said of governmental regulations affecting the lumber and fishing industries.

King, herself, is a product of the program she represents. She comes from Oregon fishing and logging stock.

Her grandfather's uncle Ace and grandfather Art Crook logged in Curry and Del Norte counties. Her husband Bud's grandfather fished the Columbia River in the early 1900s.

King's brother Joel, uncle Butch and cousin John were lost at sea while fishing in 1972. So she knows the heartache the lifestyle can bring. She also knows that fishing and logging aren't just jobs to many Oregon families.

Now, she sees those families being regulated out of an industry they've known for generations. And she understands their frustration.

King, 44, and her husband have both recently left the industry. Bud moved to operating heavy equipment for Freeman Rock and crafts jewelry and music boxes from exotic woods. She helps operate the family woodworking business, trains dogs and is a Groundfish Disaster Outreach Peer.

Together, they went through the re-employment program and are struggling to survive outside the fishing industry. Robyn is also trying to help others make the break.

"When I got my job with the Groundfish Program, my husband said he's been seeing this coming for years," Robyn explained. "When I got back from my training in Newport, I told him I believed what he'd been telling me for years.

"I'd already seen it happen with the timber industry. I couldn't believe it was happening again."

Robyn also said with the possibility of additional catch limits and potential marine reserves, fishermen are getting more and more frustrated.

"In my job the last six months, I'm seeing a lot more desperate people. Their losing their possessions. It's breaking up families," she said

The Groundfish Program features both re-employment and financial assistance. Shinn, whose family left the logging industry under similar circumstances, helps find fishermen other work.

Shinn said the program at the Hanscam Center at the Port of Brookings Harbor has found jobs for fishermen in a variety of fields.

Many have become prison guards because the pay is similar to what they're accustomed to, she explained. Trucking, heavy equipment operation, real estate, office work and maritime licensing are just a few of the other occupations Shinn has found for out-of-work fishermen.

She also said many are getting "six-pack" licenses, which allow them to skipper smaller boats.

"A lot of these guys up in Port Orford think that's going to be the future – taking guys out on small charter boats," said John Plautz, a career consultant at the One Stop Career Center.

The Groundfish Transitional Income is like state unemployment assistance that allows them to make the switch.

King said the transitional income varies according to the fisherman's situation, but it can range from $1,500 to $3,000 per month. Those numbers might sound high for unemployment income figures, but these men and women are accustomed to much higher pay working on productive boats.

Shinn added that fishermen operate without health benefits and are not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

She said a reduction in commercial fishing eliminates jobs that earn anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000 per year. That type of income is hard to reproduce in any industry, she added. And it's having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Brookings-Harbor area.

"It is really hard to watch Brookings and the smaller businesses that Brookings is known for going out of business," Shinn said. "I'm moving families out of town every day.

"Their declaring bankruptcy affects everyone they owe money to," she added.

Shinn pointed to failing businesses around town as a tertiary reaction to suffering industries.

"It's starting to affect other businesses in town because they don't have money to go toward meals or to go buy groceries," she added.

A lot of the blame is being directed at state and federal governments. Both King and Shinn said circumstances and governmental prodding encouraged many people in the fishing industry to buy boats in the 70s and 80s.

King said it was huge catches in the mid-70s that sparked a surge in the industry.

"We had record crab landings here. That was kind of the beginning of the end of the fishing industry here," King explained.

She said low interest government loans and record hauls were followed by natural declines in catches. More restrictions on catch limits followed. Now, the federal government and its agencies are discouraging fishing.

In fact, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith last week won approval of an amendment allowing for a boat buy-back program on the West Coast to move forward.

The Oregon Congressional representatives proposed shifting $500,000 already appropriated for cooperative groundfish research to the program.

"Fishers who were encouraged to increase capacity a few years ago are being forced into bankruptcy by new federal mandates," Wyden said in a press release. "Allowing this desperately needed capacity reduction program to proceed will provide some relief to those fishers and Pacific Coast fisheries as well."

Shinn reported that a private broker bought eight boats last year. She said the boats were "basically cut up and used to make boats for rich people."

While the programs will provide some fishing boat owners with some relief, it is far from a cure-all.

"It sucks," King said. "And there's going to be a lot of families that are going to be destroyed by this. I'm surprised we haven't had any shootings yet. We're just barely touching the tip of the iceberg here."

While it sounds dire, Shinn said it's not the end of the world.

"It's not all doom and gloom," she said. "We're finding people jobs. (The Groundfish Program) allows fishermen to stabilize their lifestyle long enough to find something else to do."

Crabtree was even more optimistic.

"They're talking about closing down the entire Pacific Northwest. We've got a failing economy in Oregon and we've got to get together to find a solution for this. Nobody wants this to happen."

 

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