By Larry Bacon
GOLD BEACH - The early morning fog has retreated, leaving a thick layer of low-lying clouds over the ocean west of town.
In the distance, the rocks of the Rogue Reef stand out against the white sky - uniquely shaped formations like Pyramid Rock, Needle Rock, and a rocky jumble local mariners call "The Dog Pound."
A handful of small, drifting boats rock in the waves - each carrying one or two fishermen holding a pole.
They are "live fish" fishermen, members of a small but growing Oregon commercial fishing fleet, largely on the south coast, who are cashing in on a demand for reef fish that are kept alive after they are caught.
The fish are shipped to Chinese restaurants and markets in the San Francisco area, where customers can select their dinner while it swims in a tank.
Live fish is Oregon's hottest new fishery. Last year, participating fishermen earned nearly $600,000; the take through mid-April of this year was about $250,000.
Hook and line fishery
Pete McHenry is a 47-year-old Brookings resident who has been a commercial fisherman since he was 12. He has skippered a $1 million tuna boat in Hawaii, fished for tuna off Mexico and Central America, and owns a 36-foot "combo" boat he's used in a variety of offshore fisheries.
But today he couldn't be more content than to be out in his 19-foot aluminum skiff, pole in hand, dangling a single lead jig and a triple hook over the side.
McHenry likes live fishing because it's low stress. He can do it by himself and he doesn't need to worry about hiring a deckhand and catching enough fish to pay the help.
"It's quiet. It's hands-on," he says. "It's close up to the rocks and the sea lions and the birds and nature. This is my church."
And the money can be good. Sometimes very, very good. Some live fish bring $6.50 or more per pound and the average price - based on size and species - is about $4 per pound at the dock. That's two to three times what the fish would bring dead.
"An average day is $300 to $400," McHenry says. "On a real good day a guy can make $1,000."
Because of weather and rough seas, however, you can't fish every day. Fishermen say the hard-core types get out maybe 150 days a year if they're lucky.
One of the pioneers
More than a dozen live fish boats work out of Gold Beach and up to 30 out of Port Orford, where live fishing began taking off about four years ago. Only a scattering of live fish landings have been made at other Oregon ports.
The live fish boom couldn't have come at a better time for many of the fishermen. Many, like McHenry, have left other fisheries because of downturns in productivity, or increasingly restrictive catch limits as state and federal regulators try to protect declining stocks.
McHenry fishes for crab part of the year, and his wife runs a crab stand in Brookings. He's one of the live fish pioneers, moving into it three years ago when catch restrictions for groundfish (fish that live at or near the bottom of the ocean) made it impractical to continue.
Live fishing is actually easier on fish stocks, he says, because the higher price mean fishermen can make a living by bringing back only a few hundred pounds of fish per week rather than thousands of pounds.
Things are good for the live fish fisherman now, but McHenry and others worry about whether it can stay that way. "We need to have some restrictions to keep this thing going," he says. "I would like my kids (boys 6 and 11) to be able to do this someday."
Influx worries some
Hook and line fishing for groundfish is one of the few West Coast fisheries in which the number of fishermen is unlimited. Some fishermen from California are already bringing their boats north to fish out of Gold Beach because of new restrictions in their state that limit fishing to three days a week.
McHenry is concerned about too many people getting into the fishery, as happened in California, where the number of fishermen kept going up and catches have been on the decline for the past three to four years. That's why California live fish buyers began looking to Oregon.
More people can be expected to join the live fish fleet because from a financial standpoint it's an easy business to break into, McHenry says.
"For a couple of thousand dollars you can go buy a cheap junker boat with an outboard motor and a commercial fish license, and you're in business," he says. "That's the vulnerability of this fishery."
Catch bound for California
Even though most live fish fishermen land the majority of their fish with rod and reel, McHenry prefers "cable gear" - deploying multiple buoys attached to a line with three or four baited hooks. It's a way a single fisherman can catch just as much or more fish than two people with rods and reels.
But today a quick run of the cable gear brings in only one fish. McHenry switches back to hook and line and brings in a few fish, but other boats are doing much better.
Before long, another fisherman takes pity on him and tosses him a red jig. It isn't long before the red begins to do its magic. "Fish on!" McHenry yells. "And it's the right kind, too. A trout!"
More specifically, a sea trout, which also goes by the name of kelp greenling.
Soon McHenry is dropping one fish after another into the tank of sea water in the middle of his boat. He lands reddish-brown sea trout, bright orange canary rockfish, big-mouthed cabezon and his favorite - china rockfish. It's a beautiful fish with a swirling pattern of black and yellow spots and brings top dollar of $6.25 a pound.
The north wind begins to build, and the fishermen know it will soon be whipping up waves. So they head in to unload their fish at the Nor-Cal Seafood Plant, where about 6,000 pounds of live fish have been collected in open tanks over four days for shipment to the company's headquarters plant in Oakland. From there, the fish go to restaurants and markets in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As the boats unload, there's talk among the fishermen of a forum in Bandon later in the week to air some concerns about the live fish fishery. McHenry is a panelist, along with representatives of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and recreational fishing interests.
Call for restrictions
Many of the Gold Beach and Port Orford live fish fishermen attend the Bandon meeting. There's a little talk about ways to avoid conflicts with recreational fisherman, but the main subject is how to limit the number of live fish fishermen.
A consensus emerges to work toward state actions that would cap participation in the live fish fishery. The actions might include legislation to create a limited-entry program that includes all hook and line groundfish fishermen, whether or not their catch is kept alive.
There is also discussion about further regulations to protect the shallow-water species targeted by the live fish fleet.
"We have concern this could be a runaway fishery," says Jim Golden, a fish and wildlife official who is present at the forum.
Golden says much is unknown about some of the fish being caught by live fish anglers. The state needs to move quickly, he says, to learn as much as possible about the reef fish to help keep them from being overharvested.
"We want to manage in such a fashion that we have a sustainable resource," he says.
Larry Bacon covers the Oregon Coast. Call 997-8180 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.