As rural towns become the new mecca for remote high-tech workers, getaway destinations for city dwellers escaping Covid, and refuges for people fleeing fire-ravaged regions, Southern Oregon’s coastal communities are collaboratively exploring emerging blue economies to create local, living-wage jobs while combating threats of climate change.  

Gary Burns, a city council member in Port Orford, Oregon, has seen what a homogenous economy in a small town can lead to. “For decades after logging left, this town crippled along,” he said. “Houses started to decay. Tourism was the only thing to grab on to. When your community is so small, you just don’t have the same dynamic of bigger towns to draw in different kinds of manufacturing or companies to come in.” 

Gary “Wiz” Burns, a city council member in Port Orford, at his woodshop. (Photo by Jan Pytalski)

With increasing fears of global warming and its impact on Oregon’s coastal waters, regional business and organizational leaders are exploring ways to promote economic growth, through ‘blue’ markets that merge traditional ocean livelihoods with innovative enterprises focusing on stewardship of marine ecosystems along with social and cultural inclusion.

 In 2018 the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that approximately 350 million jobs worldwide are tied to the ocean or coastal economic activities, including aquaculture (the farming of fish, crustaceans, algae, and other marine organisms), which will be providing 60% of fish for human consumption by 2030. Situated along the world’s most pristine waters, remote southern Oregon coastal towns are poised to be key stakeholders in these rapidly evolving, sea-based industries.  

In June of 2020, the state of Oregon and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) committed to offshore wind energy planning. Three months later, The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI) passed resolution 20 – 083, Supporting Research Into Developing Clean, Renewable, Floating Offshore Wind Energy (FOW). Led by Mark Petrie, a 33-year-old enrolled member of the Hanis Band of the Coos Tribe, the resolution stated the following reasons for The Confederated Tribes to pursue FOW research: “To assert Tribal sovereignty by taking a lead in becoming more energy independent; bring maximum socio-economic benefits to the Tribe’s traditional territory in the form of long-term, sustainable family jobs; and ensure the new use of ocean energy be developed in such a way as to minimize potential effects on the cultural and natural resources of the Tribe, ocean environment and its other responsible ocean users.” 

It was further resolved that the Tribe will seek to collaborate with other coastal tribes and regional or national intertribal organizations.

Tom Calanvese, Oregon State University’s Port Orford Field Station manager, during a class with OSU students at the overlook above the port in Port Orford. (Photo by Jan Pytalski)

“These are all really big things for our small little coastal town of Coos Bay,” Petrie said. “Having a possible wind project off of our small area here could change this area dramatically, and could also possibly change it in a negative way for cultural resources, natural resources. I wanted to make sure nothing was done while we weren’t at the table. Our chief says often, ‘If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.’ For tribes that is true a lot. When different agencies are working and divvying out the resources and looking at things, they’ve not had tribes at the table very often.”

A growing number of scientists, fishers, port directors, and community leaders believe it’s long past time to make sure all voices are at the table. “If we’re going to find a future through the economic and climate changes ahead of us, we need to do it together,” said Tom Calvanese, Oregon State University’s Port Orford Field Station manager.

Over the last eight years, Calvanese has consulted with CTCLUSI researchers as the Port of Port Orford forwarded its redevelopment initiative and began raising capital to construct its state-of-the-art facility. The site plan includes a live fish processing center, marine research labs, retail space for future sea-based enterprises, and expanded ecotour and recreational access. “To have a sustainable blue economy we must have a healthy ocean. My goal is to foster greater awareness across all sectors, from researchers to adventurists, to safeguard our seas,” said Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours.

The centerpiece of the plan is a 500 gallons-per-minute seawater retrieval system, pumping water directly from the ocean. Aaron Ashdown, a second-generation commercial fisherman, and the Port’s president, explained its importance: “Having live tanks provides added value for our catch. A live rockfish might bring $7 a pound versus $1.50 a pound if it’s dead. With Port Orford being so far removed from large cities like the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland, our products are more valuable if they can be sold live.” 

“If we are to turn around the ravages of time in these coastal communities, it’s critical to create family-wage jobs,” added Calvanese.  “The Economics: National Ocean Watch (ENOW) reported the average for income tourist-based service sectors is $20,000 a year. In comparison, the fisheries sector and all its related industries is around $70,000. Through our redevelopment initiatives, we hope to create more opportunities for better paying, living-wage jobs.”

In Bandon, thirty miles north, the port’s partnership with a privately-owned dulse aquafarm originated from a joint effort with a grower in Port Orford. “It’s encouraging to see communities let go of the scarcity mindset and work together rather than competing for resources,” said Jeff Griffin, the port’s manager. “There are endless opportunities to cultivate a thriving blue economy beyond the boundaries of our small towns, while also protecting our seas. In our water sampling project with the Coquille Indian Tribe, their resource management department gets the ease of access to monitor and collect vital scientific data. The Port gets a complete water analysis, ensuring we farm the highest quality marine-cultivated products that can be sold to restaurants, markets, and environmentally conscious industries locally as well as nationally.”

Jeff Griffin, the Bandon’s port manager, in front of dulse drying at the dock in Bandon, Oregon. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

Two thousand miles eastward, Kevin Bishop, a certified hemp grower in Marathon, Texas, population 380, depends on sea-based fertilizers and salmon/fish byproducts to farm organically. “I buy many of my fertilizers from the Northwest. With all the refineries and contaminants in the Gulf of Mexico, the water here is too polluted,” he said. “The success of small, environmentally-conscious industries are interdependent, just like the environment. What’s happening in Southern Oregon can affect industries nationwide, for better or worse. With the mindfulness of the blue economy and sharing knowledge and resources, I think it’ll be for the better.” 

Forming value-centered partnerships within and across regions using a sustainable blue economy model can help fuel innovative industries within communities often left behind as infrastructure and resources get directed to more populated regions.

Chairperson Brenda Meade from the Coquille Indian Tribe (Source: Twitter)

In a meeting along Bandon’s Port, Brenda Meade, Chairman of the Coquille Indian Tribe, addressed a multigenerational crowd, including community members, commissioners, business owners, sea industries, and representatives from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ve come to seek Port of Bandon’s support. With the worst salmon returns in the entire state of Oregon, salmon on the Coquille River could be extinct in less than three years,” she said. “If we don’t start being good stewards and start fixing the problems we’ve caused, our salmon will be gone forever. I will not let this happen. Not on my watch. I could scream to our representatives in D.C., but no one is listening. It will take all of us here — right, left, businesses and organizations — right here, right now, to save this vital resource.” 

After fifty minutes of discussion, the port passed a resolution to join the Coquille Tribe in its efforts to reclaim salmon.

These remote southern Oregon coastal communities are at the epicenter of a precipitously changing seascape. “We all live under the same sky. We all share the same waters, Calvanese said. “It’s exciting to see us all think more as a community about how we coordinate our efforts in a way that’s beneficial to everyone, whether it’s here or anywhere in the world. In these seemingly remote towns, we are at the center of making a huge difference.” 

Additional reporting by Jan Pytalski.