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FLORENCE FLEET FACES COLD TRUTH.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - When the only fish buyer here left town, Florence's tiny fleet lost its biggest source of income.

But the more pressing problem is what's still here: an aging, near-defunct ice machine that no one wants to run.

The exit of the last dockside buyer could mean the end of the Florence fishery some day, but having no place to buy ice shuts the industry down now, fishermen say. Without a means of keeping fish fresh - a typical load of ice for a small boat is two tons - there's no point in dropping a net.

"No ice, no fishing," said Jerry Dillon, who fishes on the Trondheim and the Zephyr.

California-based Carvalho had operated on the port-owned dock since 2000 before pulling out in July after at least two profitless years. No one has volunteered to take over the money-losing venture of selling ice in the interim, so fishermen have turned to the Port of Siuslaw for help.

But the port balked, arguing it isn't government's place to subsidize a private and flailing industry.

Now, the entire community is in the throes of a debate over whether to keep fishing alive in Florence, a town that relies on its historic identity to draw tourists.

Fishermen are circulating petitions aimed at pressuring the port into solving the ice problem one way or another. Mayor Alan Burns drafted a letter to the port this week, urging its commissioners to "maintain and strengthen the local fishing industry, including your work to ensure adequate support facilities."

Port commissioners hope they'll work out a compromise, whether that means buying a smaller ice machine or trucking the product in from somewhere else.

"We need the fishery. You guys need the ice," Commissioner John Scott told fishermen at a packed meeting this week. "There shouldn't be a conflict here."

Buyers come and go

Over the past two decades, buyers have come and gone from the Florence port, leaving local fishermen in a constant struggle. The port isn't big enough to attract the boats that would keep a buyer from leaving, and the Siuslaw River bar has gotten increasingly dangerous as its jetties deteriorate and federal dredging money gets harder to come by.

But some fishermen prefer the low moorage costs and proximity to fishing grounds such as the Heceta Banks area, so they've remained. Of 36 boats renting space at the port, 28 are current on their fees.

In 1991, the port signed a lease with International C-Food Market to rent a building and property on the dock in exchange for opening a deli, buying fish from the local fleet and turning over 1 percent of gross seafood dollars to the port. The lease didn't require ICM to provide ice or buy fish at fair market value, but ICM did sell ice for several years.

Four years ago, ICM turned over the seafood-buying business to Carvalho, which buys fish from boats along the West Coast and processes and sells the fish to restaurants, supermarkets and other outlets.

Carvalho took over maintenance and operation of the ice machine and bought 70 percent of the Florence catch.

But the arrangement didn't work well, port Commissioner Joshua Greene said. Among other disagreements, fishermen griped that they were paying too much for ice. But there was only one place in Florence to buy ice, so fishermen went to Carvalho to load up - only sporadically, Greene said.

"Fishermen weren't willing to call ahead and give notice about when they'd be coming in and how much ice they needed. The fact is, the ice machine would work if you knew how to baby it along. If they had lead time, they could get the thing going and have ice in perfect condition by the time a boat arrived," he said. "Carvalho tried to explain this to the fishermen, and they didn't want to hear it."

Frustrated by that situation and money losses on the fish-buying end, Carvalho decided to move out of Florence.

Ice usually a loss leader

To get ice now, fishermen either have to detour to Newport or Coos Bay before they start fishing or they actually moor at a different port.

If that continues, it will mean the death of the Florence commercial fleet, said Neil Roberts, who owns the Pegasus. "That effectively shuts down fishing in Florence," he said.

And if the industry goes away, fishermen say, the U.S. Coast Guard will have no reason to keep its station here, Congress won't appropriate dredging money to keep the bar safe and the port itself will lose the funding it gets based on the premise that Florence is a commercial port.

Port officials dispute this doomsday scenario. But they acknowledge that keeping the Florence fishery alive is important. The trouble is how to make that happen.

In most ports, ice is a "loss leader," a product seafood buyers sell to establish a relationship with fishermen so they can make money off the purchase of fish.

Fishermen are accustomed to buying ice on credit and then settling up once they bring in their catch. If the port simply sold ice and didn't buy fish, this scenario wouldn't work.

There's also a liability problem, Greene said. With no buyer insured against injury while the ice machine and hoists are operated, the port would have to assume responsibility if someone got hurt.

And there's a staffing problem. There's not enough business in Florence to justify a full-time employee to run the ice machine and hoist, and the labor costs would add to a venture that already loses money.

"Some of the fisherman think because we're a government entity, it is for them to ask and us to give without any reason," Greene said.

Other ports have ice problems

Fishermen insist that these problems can be overcome, but the real issue is that they're not wanted in Florence - pointing to studies that the port has commissioned suggesting condominiums as the best value for the port's bayfront property.

"Their agenda is to get us out of here," said Dillon, "so they can make a lot of money putting condos on the boardwalk."

That's untrue, Port Manager Tom Kartrude said. The port does a lot to keep fishing in Florence by running the fuel dock, providing cheap moorage rates and leasing property to buyers at little or no cost. But the port simply can't afford to buy an ice machine and provide it for fishermen outright, he said.

"We don't see any viable model for the port to be in the ice manufacturing business. If the port just made ice and sold it, nobody could afford it," Kartrude said. "That's the worst possible scenario."

The conflict is beginning to play out on other parts of the coast as well, said Onno Husing, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, which represents ports and other governments along the coast.

Port Orford just lost its local ice provider, leaving commissioners in the exact position as Siuslaw. Winchester Bay's Salmon Harbor gets its ice from Charleston, but its source in Coos Bay is likely to close. And fishermen in Newport are mulling the idea of buying a community ice machine so they don't have to rely on seafood buyers.

"There's an ice crisis," Husing said.

As a result, other ports are watching closely to see how Siuslaw resolves its ice problem, Kartrude said.

All sides in Florence seem to agree that forging some sort of partnership is the way to go.

Fishermen need to organize, possibly forming a cooperative or a "fishermen's wives" club. That way, they could collect data on how much ice they need, so the port knows how big a machine to buy, Greene said. A cooperative also could take out an insurance policy and apply for grants to help fund the purchase. And a volunteer club could staff the ice machine.

Meanwhile, the port needs to get out of its lease with ICM and take back its property so there's a place to put an ice machine, said Leonard Van Curler, a Siuslaw port commissioner who runs Carvalho's processing plant in Newport.

"They're not in compliance with the lease, and we have to aggressively attack ICM, and say this isn't working," he said.

Then, all sides can figure out the best ice-making solution - whether it's buying a new machine or participating in some kind of sharing program with other coastal communities who face the same problem.

Once all that is sorted out, the fishermen can return their focus to the long-term problem: finding a new buyer.

GATHERING DATA

Port of Siuslaw Commissioner Joshua Greene is leading an effort to collect data from Florence's commercial fishermen to determine how much ice the fleet needs. He's asking all commercial fishermen who would use an ice machine now or in the foreseeable future to contact him directly.

Call: (541) 997-4970

CAPTION(S):

Florence fishermen such as Clark McBroom must buy ice in Newport or Coos Bay to keep their catch fresh since the ice plant stopped operating in Florence. Thomas Boyd / The Register-Guard Nick Wells fillets tuna for customers in Florence. Like other fishermen, he finds his livelihood threatened by the ice crisis.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Business; Without ice to keep their catch fresh, fishermen fear an industry shutdown
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 21, 2004
Words:1534
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