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Communities | Environment

Oregon Fishing Town Crippled By Federal Cuts To Port Maintenance

Port Orford, on Oregon’s South Coast, is held up as model for building sustainable fisheries. The port is home to the state’s first marine reserve and an innovative sustainable seafood co-op.

But fishers say sand shoals developing in the harbor are making Port Orford a more dangerous place to fish. That is something they’ve been saying since 2010, when the Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the port.

Top brass from the Army Corps of Engineers traveled to Port Orford Tuesday to deliver bad news. The corps says it can’t afford to dredge the fishing port now or in the foreseeable future; other small ports in the Northwest will face similar cuts.

Fishermen in rubber boots packed a small community center, and told the Army Corps staff the harbor in Port Orford has filled with sand.

The shallow water causes waves to break over their boats as they leave the dock. Donny Gosforth said there are fewer days he can safely get to sea.

“And if I can’t get out then we’re all going to be standing there, going broke,” he said. “And when we go broke and we can’t go fishing this little town is going to dry up and go away and it’s one of the oldest ones on the Oregon Coast.”

For 40 years the army corps has dredged Port Orford’s navigation channel to keep it clear. But Congress and the president have cut the maintenance budget for small ports.

Col. John Eisenhower heads up the corps’ Portland district. He told Tuesday’s gatheering that fishing in Port Orford only contributes about $5 million to the national economy. Ports that small can no longer expect federal help.

_View Port Orford, Ore. in a larger map_

“Port Orford is the first of what we expect to be many low use harbors not only along the Oregon coast that are going to experience zero funding this following fiscal year and future fiscal years,” he said.

Tom Calvanese, a local biologist who commercially fishes for sea urchin, says the meeting left him feeling pretty hopeless — and worried about the safety of local fishers.

“There is a very real possibility that someone could be injured or killed,” he says.

The community has come up with one idea to try to remove some sand, according to Calvanese.

“Our local fisherman will be tying their boats up to the docks in a few weeks and using the prop wash from their vessels to blow sand out of the channel enough to be able to use the harbor,” he said.

The do-it-yourself propeller dredging can damage boats and is not a long-term solution for Port Orford, Calvanese said. But it might make the channel a little deeper, and safer when the crabbing season starts next month.

Fishers say Port Orford was a reliable deep-water port until the late 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers built a jetty to protect the port from winter storms. The jetty had the unintended effect of trapping sand in the harbor.

Locals have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to consider redesigning the jetty, notching it, or removing it all together. Corps staff said they were studying the jetty problem, but could not guarantee any federal funding would be available for a solution.

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