Big Bucks Swimming Off Coast of Oregon

Sunday, April 22, 2001)

COOS BAY, Ore. -- When it comes to little-known groundfish species, fishermen are learning one simple rule: Bring 'em back alive.

Lingcod, cabezon, greenling, yellowtail, China, black, grass and quillback aren't worth much when sent to the market dead. So anglers on the Oregon coast are wading into the lucrative business of selling live fish that are bound for glass tanks in chic California restaurants.

The live fish headed for San Francisco's top eateries are netting about $4.50 per pound, compared with 40 cents per pound for dead fish.

"It's a new fishery. You can't stop it," said live-fish buyer Tony Cottor. "And it's a money-maker."

But sport fishermen and environmentalists worry that the growing commercial interest in groundfish will lead to a depleted fishery.

The sides will discuss their differences Thursday, when the Port of Bandon hosts a near-shore fisheries forum.

Forum organizers and panel members say they hope the symposium can help them achieve successful management of a fishery cloaked in uncertainty.

About 20 commercial boats now engage in live-fish angling near Port Orford and several charter boats also land groundfish in the area, said Ron Moss, who operates three boats.

The profit potential of the live fish market appeals to commercial anglers searching for ways to make money while waiting for salmon stocks to recover and enduring poor crab and shrimp seasons.

The concern is that increased live fishing and California's move to tighten restrictions in near-shore fisheries will drive anglers farther north along the scarcely-regulated and under-studied waters off Oregon's coast.

"The problem is we don't know how abundant these species are," said Jim Golden, Marine Resources Program director at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The concern is that we could be overfishing these species without even knowing it."

The most recent near-shore stock assessment by the National Marine Fisheries Service was completed in 1997, when the agency listed 47 near-shore species as "status unknown." Some things are known: Eight species of groundfish are considered overfished, and seven of them are rockfish species.

The fear that the area's reefs could be hit hard by live fishing prompted port manager Alex Linke to recommend the forum.

Linke acknowledges that he does not see an enduring value in the live-fish fishery and, questioning its sustainability, wrote, it "is not good in the long run for either the commercial or recreational fleet."