Waiting out an offshore storm, fishing boats line a dock on Yaquina Bay in Newport.
Economy of the fishery
Fishermen, especially small operators, have been giving up on Oregon waters for decades.
Total revenue for commercial fishing vessels home-ported in Oregon in 1982 was $108.5 million. In 2012, it was $128 million; but adjusting for inflation, that is only half of 1982 revenue.
According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife economists, there were 3,420 commercial fishing vessels with home ports in the state in 1982. Of those, almost 2,400 brought in less than $5,000 in annual revenue. In 2012, the last year with total records, only 951 vessels were home-ported in the state and only 218 of those were under $5,000 in income.
Of what's left of the industry, it's dungeness crab that is the king of income in Oregon commercial fishing. The creatures, prized for the dinner table, brings in more than $50 million per year. The 2011 catch of 21.2 million pounds was about twice the levels from the 1990s. The largest recent crab take was in 2006: 33.3 million pounds.
Groundfish — about 80 white-fleshed species — are next, prompting about $29 million of income annually.
The tuna catch accounts for about $19 million. At around 10 million pounds per season, levels have remained steady for the last decade.
On the rise in Oregon is pink shrimp, which brought in $25 million in 2011, double from 2010 and triple from 2009 levels.
On the decline is salmon, which brought in $6.8 million in 2011 after a $7.7 million tally in 2010. Peak salmon catches in the late 1980s were eight times the poundage of the current take.
NEWPORT — Tom Townsend, skipper of the small fishing vessel Tiger, has nailed up a crucifix in the wheelhouse. And for those Sundays when he must be miles out at sea to make a living, Townsend keeps a copy of Today's Missal so he can read the scriptures.
Each time a fish comes on board, the bespectacled 6-foot-2-inch captain says a prayer of thanks. He asks for God's help in the mornings and evenings and admits he prays extra when the weather gets bad. Around his neck is a St. Michael the Archangel medal.
Townsend, 54, says his mission is simple: catch fish and stay alive.
He's new to commercial fishing. Owner of a small Sacramento-based construction firm, he was compelled during the recession to find other income. So he purchased a 46-year-old oak-hulled charter boat, perhaps discounted because a murder was committed on board in 2008 — one fishing partner killed the other.
So far, Townsend and experienced deck hand Josh Laudenglos get along famously as they have plied the waters off Oregon's coast. The two are now gearing up for the crab season, which can be lucrative. It can also kill you. Each season, two or three fisherman die, usually swept overboard by wind and waves. The work is constant and perilous.
Earlier this season, one trip started out in fair skies off Coos Bay. But once the Tiger was 120 miles out, weather reports turned.
Winds hit 40 miles per hour and waves of 15 feet crashed over the railings. In the middle of the night, as the sea rocked them in their bunks, the men heard a crunch. Gusts had broken a support for one of the long arms that during the day hold lines far out in the water.
Before long, the GPS went on the fritz. Laudenglos and Townsend had to navigate by compass, the way seamen have for centuries. They also scrambled to pump several feet of water out of the engine room.
It's been that kind of a year.
"We planned on making a lot more money than we have so far this season," says Townsend, whose sense of adventure keeps him fired up amid trials.
Townsend is accustomed to risk. He spent 10 years on a U.S. Army bomb disposal squad. "I'm slightly touched to begin with," he says, smiling and taking a long draft from a Diet Pepsi.
The Tiger can hold 2.5 tons of fish, iced and ready to rush to market. Townsend's niche is the high-quality upscale buyers who supply fine restaurants and shops. His boat stays out no longer than six days so the fish is as fresh as possible.
On the ocean, the men work from sunrise to sunset. Experience helps. Fishermen get to know the behaviors of certain species — where they swim and what they like to bite. The location of birds is a sign for what's swimming beneath the surface. Mariners also know what weather to avoid. "You don't mess with 50-knot winds," says Laudenglos. "That gets everybody at your funeral."
A 38-year-old native of Tacoma, Wash., Laudenglos has fished for a living since he was a boy. "Since then, I've never been more than spittin' distance from water," he says.
Powerfully built, he uses his gravelly voice to call fishing a "lifestyle" not a job. "This skill set I have does no good on land," he says, rubbing together thick scarred paws.
A deckhand must be a decent mechanic and must know some physics. Knots need to be second nature. There is no room for panic. It pays to be handy with a sharp knife, cleaning fish on the fly and in rough water. On a good day, blood is sloshing on the deck.
Though lures attract target species, unexpected creatures sometimes get snagged and come on board. Mako sharks are among the most dreaded. The clever creatures play dead and then flop toward a human to attack.
Like all deckhands, Laudenglos gets paid only a percentage of the catch. He has had weeks when he earned $10,000 and months when he pocketed only $72.
"Fishing has always been a feast or famine thing," says Kaety Hildenbrand, a staffer for Oregon Sea Grant, a research and public outreach project based at Oregon State University's Newport Extension office.
People still make their living from fishing, but are at the mercy of the sea, and of regulations, Hildebrand explains. Young people continue to get into the industry, partly for the promise of money and partly for the romantic pull. Some youngsters even put college on hold to fish.
Hildenbrand's father took the family fishing vessels from Newport to Alaska. She recalls as a girl seeing him flop onto the couch after sleepless days on the catch. She would pick dried fish scales and crusted goo from the exhausted man's arm hair as he slumbered.
"We struggled to make it," says Ruby Moon, a Sea Grant worker who grew up in a Crescent City, Calif. fishing family. "There were a lot of good times but a lot of bad times." Moon's father, who just retired after decades as a deckhand, would come as far north as Newport and made much of his money during the winter crabbing season.
Fishing can be hard on those left ashore. "If your husband or son or dad is going out, you live with that fear," says Moon, whose son is now fishing. "You keep a close eye on the weather."
Hildebrand and Moon describe fishermen as hard working, salt-of-the-earth people who feel like stewards of the ocean. They tend to have a spiritual connection to the sea, the women say.
The Tiger's on-board missal was a gift from Father Robert Wolf, the parish priest in Coos Bay, not far from the boat's home port in Charleston.
"I told Tom if he can't get back in by Sunday, he could read and be with us that way," Father Wolf says.
Townsend, when he knows he cannot make it to Mass, makes sure to apologize to the priest, in whatever port, and ask for a dispensation.
Townsend has named his fishing business "St. Peter's Day" after the famous fisherman of the gospels.
Raised Episcopalian, he attended Catholic school in Westchester, Calif. In the Army, he learned some Southern Baptist thought. Then he met Therese, a devoted Catholic who taught at parochial schools. He decided that for the marriage to work, he must join the Church.
Laudenglos, a student of history raised with no particular faith, has been intrigued by Pope Francis. The Catholic leader has broad vision, he says. Laudenglos goes to Mass with Townsend about half the time.
"The Catholic Church does so much good in the world," Laudenglos says. "The bad things are just what makes the news. You don't hear all the good stuff."
The men marvel together at the power of nature and often at its beauty. One night miles off Coos Bay, dolphins began swimming around the boat, leaving bioluminescent trails.
That sort of experience often leads to wonder about the supernatural. There are times when Townsend lets the boat drift while hauling in a fish. It then comes to rest in a zone with a more abundant catch.
"Is it coincidence? Is it God?" Townsend asks with a laugh. "I don't know. But I have my suspicions."