Port of Ilwaco: All for one, one for all?

KATHERYN HOUGHTON/Coast River Business Journal Al Malchow was 12 when his father took him fishing on the Doreen for the first time, their family boat since 1942. His father lost his crabbing license when permits reached Washington's coast. The permits were allotted based on a three-year average and his father didn't meet the standard.

In recent years, the ocean’s fish and crab have been divvied out through quotas and permits — making it hard for new fishermen to start business on an ocean that’s already been allocated.

Al Malchow, a fisherman based out of Ilwaco, said the papers needed aren’t only hard to find, they’re expensive.

“There was a time that all we had to do was unrope the boat, catch fish, and come back and sell it,” Malchow said.

Small-time boats could build their business by catching as much as possible each season. But the race was dangerous. Boats were on the water no matter the conditions and areas were sometimes overfished.

Quotas and permits designating how much each boat could catch made fishing safer. But now, a fishing operation has to have equipment, a boat and — for roughly the same price — the right paperwork.

The Port of Ilwaco is investigating a way to help local fishermen access quotas and permits at lower costs.

In September, the port received roughly $50,000 from the Fisheries Innovation Fund to determine if the Ilwaco community would benefit from a community fishing association. The association would buy fishing permits and quotas to lease to residential boats.

Malchow said if an association were to come to Ilwaco, it could put that stack of paperwork within reach of people looking to start a business or expand.

He said the absence of local permits can drive local fishermen to offload in Oregon. Some boats have quotas that are too small, which cut them off at the beginning of the season leaving people out of work. Some quotas are too large compared to the boat’s equipment, which cuts earnings down and reduces what was available in local markets.

“If I weren’t fourth generation with a boat in the port, I couldn’t afford this job,” he said.

A community fishing association could change what has become a private market back into a public resource, said Edward Backus, the principal of consulting firm Collaborative Fisheries Associates.

Backus said when fishermen retire and sell their quotas, they are often bought by larger ports with more money.

“Once a quota is sold, it’s very hard to bring that business back to the port it was sold out of,” Backus said, adding that the exchange leaves smaller ports like Ilwaco at risk of permanently losing their share of the ocean.

Ilwaco Port Manager Guy Glenn Jr. said a community with anchored fishing rights creates security for local businesses — when boats dock, fish need to be sold, gear needs to be repaired and crews need to eat.

The first step is determining what the community needs and if it’s financially possible. The grant lasts until September 2016, so the port has a year to listen, Glenn said.

“If we find out it’s what people want, as a community we’ll start planning,” he said.

Mike Shirely, owner of the Ilwaco Landing fish-processing facility, said an association would have to involve representatives from each aspect of the fishing community.

“I don’t think you’re going to bring in more people with quota, but you’re going to infuse money in the community where people are unemployed,” Shirley said.

Shirely said his job relies on the jobs of people at sea. When it’s slow for fishermen, it’s slow for processors, and the truck drivers that transport fish inland, and so on.

He sat in the Landing’s meeting room with Manager Luke Erwinski. It was 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 22. No one was offloading fish and they didn’t expect anyone would for the rest of the day.

Six months ago, Erwinski was a year-round fisherman. He said he likes the idea of a community-built association that could address unique challenges to their port.

While an association could offer some security for the Peninsula, Erwinski said fishing will ultimately be controlled by nature.

“Fishermen go where the fish are,” he said. “We can take steps to help locals reach their goals, which is awesome, but even with quotas it always depends on the year they have on the water.”

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