Fishing for resiliencein Garibaldi

In a multi-year study, we investigated the multifaceted nature of finding success in commercial fishing, gaining a new appreciation of the potential for creativity, and collaboration to bolster coastal communities.

Tucked in below the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, at the north end of Oregon’s Tillamook Bay, lies the city of Garibaldi, population 818. Established in 1910, the Port of Garibaldi is the seaport nearest to Portland, beating out the Port of Astoria by just over seven miles.

Like many small coastal communities, Garibaldi has weathered both boom and bust in its commercial fishery—a primary economic driver in the city and Tillamook County—and is looking for ways to improve the lives and livelihoods of local workers supported by the fleet and associated industries.

In 2017, a coalition of local and regional stakeholders formed to enhance the local fishing economy, specifically, focused on increasing the wealth and well-being of small commercial fishing boat owners, crew members, fish processors, and retailers in the Garibaldi-Tillamook area. Coalition members include Rural Development Initiatives, Columbia Pacific Economic Development District, Port of Garibaldi, and Visit Tillamook Coast.

In 2018, Ecotrust was hired to conduct an intensive assessment of the region’s seafood value chain. The process drew together a wide array of data and information to better understand the opportunities and challenges surrounding the local economy, including documenting recent shifts in fisheries landings, the impacts of climate change, and recent local initiatives that are having beneficial effects.

Learn more about the Garibaldi Seafood Initiative Value Chain Assessment:
Download the Executive Summary | Download the full report

Read the Economic Impact Report for Commercial Fisheries of Tillamook County:
Download the full report

A marina in the left image; a crate of crabs suspended above a boat full of crabs in the right photo.
Left photo: Garibaldi marina; Right photo: Dungeness crab offload, courtesy of Fishpeople Seafood

Single shifts, big impact

While the city of Garibaldi is small, the port, the surrounding services, and access to the abundance of the ocean hold significant influence for Tillamook County. In 2018, its commercial fisheries landed 2,171,554 lbs of seafood worth $5,215,602 in revenue, creating nearly 80 full-time equivalent jobs.

The availability and abundance of commercially-harvested seafood is impacted by a number of factors. In Tillamook County, the Dungeness crab fishery is the most economically important wild catch. Statewide, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Dungeness crab commonly ranks as the highest valued fishery, netting more than $50 million in 2016. That’s close to 10 percent of total fisheries income for the state, which includes household income generated from participating in out-of-state fisheries like Alaska’s lucrative salmon fishery. However, recently, domoic acid has been found in crab meat during the annual fishing season, causing delays in harvest and, for some, a loss of income. Once regarded as a uncommon on the Oregon Coast, the presence of domoic acid in shellfish is caused by toxic algae blooms spurred by warming ocean temperatures.

This single influencing factor, among many others, for the Dungeness fishery provides an important glimpse into the vulnerabilities faced by small fishing vessels that rely heavily on a limited number of commercial species. In addition to harvest pressures, boats coming to dock at the Port of Garibaldi (which serves as the main moorage for Tillamook County’s commercial fleet) need to coordinate access to infrastructure, including hoists, ice machines, and on-shore cold storage—critical components for delivering the day’s catch from deck to dock and onward to consumer markets. Other complicating factors include access to increasingly expensive commercial permits, shifting management standards, and variable consumer preferences.

Over the course of the project, the Ecotrust reporting team met with 30+ crew members, dock workers, captains, and fishing business owners who provided critical insight into their business experience. More than 60 percent of those we interviewed said they struggled to meet personal or household financial needs in the past three years.

A fisherman loading an albacore into a bucket in the left photo; various types of fresh seafood for sale in a refrigerated case in the right photo
Left photo: A fisherman with an albacore tuna, by Kristen Penner; right photo: various types of fresh seafood for sale

To better understand the financial challenges faced by community members employed and supported by earnings from commercial fisheries, we dove into the data, examining earnings by species, by year, and price per pound; total number of trips by year; number of active vessels by year; permits and ownership structures that influence species access; the influence of tourism on the local economy; shifting management regulations; and more.

We found a number of influencing factors: First, many of Garibaldi’s most important fisheries are limited entry. This means fishermen must purchase various permits to go fishing for specific species of fish and shellfish. As well, the total number of limited entry permits available is capped. Permits are often similar to real estate; if a fishermen wants access into a limited entry fishery, they must find another fisherman willing to sell their permit. The more lucrative a fishery is or the more demand there is for type of permit, the more valuable the permit becomes.

In a small port like Garibaldi, fishing for a diverse range of species provides insurance against declines in their primary fishery, but securing multi-species licensing and permits is increasingly cost-prohibitive. The high permit costs (as high as $210,000 for a 300-pot crab permit) also make it difficult for new, and often young, fishermen to enter the market.

To be a successful commercial fisherman, one must have a high level of business acumen, financial discipline, and be able to understand and navigate complex and often-times rigid policy and management frameworks. Deckhands have an even greater challenge, with pay that depends on the overall catch of the boat they work on—which depends in part on the skill of the captain—and the personal responsibility for managing finances as an independent contractor. Unless a young crew member is able to chart a path to own their own boat or fishing business, it is extremely difficult to make a reliable living in this work.

A fisherman looks up at the camera while she stands over a huge Dungeness crab harvest in the left photo; two signs with the right sign reading
Left photo: Fisherman Kristen Penner with a harvest of Dungeness crabs, by Aaron Yunker; Signs from the Garibaldi Days festival in 2018

Community, collaboration, creativity

Despite the challenges, there are a number of bright spots that leave reason to believe economic resilience is not only possible, but well on the horizon. Entrepreneurial by nature, fishermen are actively looking for ways to market a more diverse number of species to seafood enthusiasts. The community is employing creative means in attracting tourism dollars. And, while commercial fishermen are notoriously independent, in Garibaldi, we found a growing awareness of, appreciation for, and commitment to collaboration and partnership as a means of confronting shared challenges.

Understanding of the influences, opportunities, and challenges surrounding resilient economies, the natural abundance we all rely on, and the social conditions that inhibit or enable our well-being is critical to creating a path forward for resource-dependent communities like Garibaldi, and all of us. Through data and research, partnership and perseverance, we are working to support coastal communities as they confront climate change, address inequities, and make decisions for a better future.

The project was funded by the Ford Family Foundation.

Additional advice, support, and data were provided by members of an Advisory Committee (John Holloway, sport fisherman and member of the Fisherman’s Advisory Committee for Tillamook County; Brian Trotter, commercial fisherman; Kristen Penner, commercial fisherman; Valerie Folkema, Port of Garibaldi Port Commissioner and owner of Garibaldi Marina; Terre Cooper, Director of Tillamook Economic Development Council; and Mary McArthur, Executive Director of Columbia Pacific Economic Development District), the Port of Garibaldi, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, Visit Tillamook Coast, Rural Development Initiatives, Tillamook Small Business Development Center, and the Pacific Fisheries Information Network.