Background image of Fisherman Aaron Longton, in Port Orford


Will the country follow its ocean pioneers?

Fisherman Aaron Longton, 50, has been instrumental in Port Orford’s stewardship efforts.

Ten years ago, some fishermen in the 40-boat town of Port Orford, in southern Oregon, decided to take hold of their future. They were beset by fishery closures, outcompeted by larger trawl fleets and frustrated by fishery management councils controlled by well-endowed industry interests.

So they began working with scientists, Ecotrust and other groups to develop a marine stewardship plan for the area immediately off Port Orford and the land-based watersheds that feed it. They hatched plans to market their famous black cod and other local fish through a story of stewardship. And they eventually proposed Oregon’s first marine reserve, in the highly productive waters around Redfish Rocks reef, just off the port. Redfish Rocks was officially protected by the state in 2012.

Fisherman Aaron Longton, 50, has been instrumental in Port Orford’s stewardship efforts, serving on the board of the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team and leading the nascent Port Orford Sustainable Seafood brand. And this February, he and his fishing colleagues earned a moment in the spotlight in Ocean Frontiers, a new documentary about cooperative ocean management across the country. Alongside problem-solving coalitions in Massachusetts, the Florida Keys and the Mississippi River basin and Gulf of Mexico, Port Orford’s approach to nurturing ocean health was held up as a guiding ethic for the new National Ocean Policy.

With the policy’s draft implementation plan still under development (the initial comment period is open until March 28th), we asked Longton how he and other ocean pioneers might influence it.

Is it true, as the film suggests, that there’s a movement going on in marine stewardship all over the country?

There’s no question. It’s grassroots, bottom-up, and happening all over the place. It’s coming from smaller boats and those who don’t have a voice in marine councils [which manage fish stocks across the country].

I’ve never heard the story told so well over such a broad area. It’s all over the country, all over the political spectrum – it’s not a socialist plot. That’s very valuable, in that it appeals to all kinds of audiences. You saw ag interests in the Mississippi basin and all the chemical companies initially convincing farmers to put all those fertilizers on their field. Nobody challenged it before. Now it’s starting to get challenged and farmers are using less and putting in wetlands and prairie strips. The farmers should feel good about that and they’re saving money and maintaining production levels.

What was your reaction being part of the film’s story?

I was proud to be a part of it. It was great to see on film those efforts here and elsewhere to find that sweet spot of sustainability. We’re giving as much attention to ecology as we are to economics. There’s only one thing that’s certain in Port Orford or anywhere: there will be change. So let’s heal the wounds of the past and move forward.

Where does that approach to fishing come from?

I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon which is a timber town. My dad was the general manager of a particle board plant owned by Permaneer. At the time, it was the biggest in nation. He never even considered that we would ever run out of anything – oil, fish, timber, whatever.

I remember the first time I flew over the timber country. It was 1980,  just before the explosion of Mount St. Helens and my cousin took me up to see it in his airplane. We flew over the Coast Range, which is private timberland and the clearcuts were huge, 100 to 200 acres at a time. There was lots of erosion and exposed slides. It was an ugly picture to see from above. I’ve hunted and fished and done all types of forestry work and was totally aware of the amount of logging. But I’d never seen it from above. That woke me up.

It’s the same thing in any industry, whether logging or fishing:  if you have to have 100 percent of the resource to sustain the industry, it’s not sustainable. Somewhere you have to have areas that are unlogged or unfished to keep diversity going. And who knows, a cure for cancer might come from some microbe out there in the protected area.

You’ve been trying to infuse this ethic into a new seafood brand, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood.

We’re hoping our track record differentiates us.

The average fish at the supermarket – it’s a mystery fish. If the guy behind the counter tells you something about where it’s from, it’s more than likely he’s making it up.  You hear a lot of “Snapper,” but there’s no such thing as snapper in the Pacific. We’ve got 46 species of rock fish off the Oregon coast – none of them are Snapper. So we’re doing an anti-Snapper campaign, labeling our fish to the individual species – we feel that’s really important. Because as things become overfished, using one name for everything becomes a way to mask that.

Are the economics starting to change for you all, because of stewardship?

Because we’re paying more to boats in buying for Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, it’s boosting prices across the board on the docks down here.  Some other tourism outfits are exploring options, doing kayak tours to Redfish Rocks, our marine protected area. Charter boats are taking people out to fish and there’s good money for that. And people are looking at recreational diving here as well. We’ve brought science money to do research. And we’re looking at microprocessing alongside the new science research facility here:  after you’re done aging that fish, scientist, send it over to me and I’ll get a fillet.

The biological reward of setting aside a marine protected area at Redfish Rocks, we’re not going to see that for some time. That’s because of the long lifespan for the rockfish species that occur there.

Redfish Rocks used to be fished a lot – it was a good place in summer because it was in the lee of the headlands. People who primarily fished that area took a 10% to 20% hit in income when it was declared a protected area. Not too many people would say ‘Take a fifth of my income away.’

But there’s a flip side: you gain in marketing, you gain through ecotourism, gain through science, and we’re also getting questions answered to find that sustainability sweet spot. That’s priceless, in that it helps us avoid a potential crisis.

Does the “movement” named in the film energize the National Ocean Policy process — there was only a small call to action in the film?

I hope so. There’s a lot of competing interests — wind and wave energy, sea- and land-based aquaculture, cultural fishing practices. You start doing mapping and you realize there are no voids out there in the ocean.

Those that are in fishing have to step up and protect their livelihoods. We have to designate fishing areas, as much as non-fishing areas. And we need a national policy to hash out agreements as to what goes where.

You know the most advantaged groups financially will have more clout and political power. So we have a lot to lose.

Do fishermen fear another level of regulation?

It’s reasonable to fear things coming down from the top. But that’s all the more reason to engage. Everybody with their interests has to step up and validate themselves. I like the idea of renewable energy but it’s going to take a lot of trial and error and gobbling up a lot of real estate to do it. I think it’s essential and important to do this right. We can’t have runaway development on the ocean.

We stand a lot better chance of coming to reasonable compromises if we can sit down in the same room and think proactively. That’s the way to less heartburn and the only way to have your say. I really think that is what Ocean Frontiers is all about.