On a boat out at sea, thousands of pounds of freshly caught halibut, rockfish and lingcod are densely packed on ice.
Entering the port, both fish and boats are slowly crane lifted out of the water. This ‘dolly lift’ as it’s called, is one of only six dry dock ports like it in the world.
Maintaining its unique community identity as a robust fishery, Port Orford, Ore. seeks innovative solutions to keep their fish local.
Port Orford Sustainable Seafood (POSS), a local for profit emerging cooperative of fisherman, recognized the importance of adding value to local seafood and began initiatives toward buying local fish directly from fishermen.
Buying directly from the boats for local distribution seems logical, however, historically in Port Orford, population of 1,200, this is a more difficult venture than one would think.
At the dock, fishermen sell their fish to a couple of larger buyers out of California at the going purchase price rates set by the buyers — not by the fishermen.
This type of transaction differs considerably in fisheries located on the East Coast of the U.S., states Aaron Longton, a 16-year commercial fisherman and boat owner in Port Orford, and chief executive officer of POSS.
“On the East Coast, you own your fish when you come in — every day should be like an auction at the dock. We own our fish too, but it’s different for us here,” said Longton. “It could be the length of time that these communities have existed back East, that they feel more connected through time, heritage and place.”
According to Longton, these types of fishing cooperatives have not been as successful on the Pacific. The proximity of East Coast markets to the fisheries plays a key factor in being able to sell fish locally.
Due to Port Orford’s ‘remote location,’ states Longton, Port Orford fishery does not have the advantage of being located near hundreds of restaurants or stores to sell their fish to, so it lands in other locations in the U.S.
“When you have this fishing centric town, there are a few people here, who have fishermen in their family and would be able to finagle a fish here and there, but for the general population, it was not available,” said Longton. “Basically, we have kind of a food desert for fish, in a fishing community, and we saw that we could address this problem.”
POSS is keeping more of the Port Orford catch in Port Orford and elsewhere in Oregon by implementing a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) model.
A CSF functions similarly to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, wherein the goal is to help locals gain access to local foods, and in POSS’s case, its seafood.
“This is community-supported agriculture, except we do fish instead of fruits and vegetables,” said Longton.
POSS bought and sold their first local fish in May of 2009. Visiting a local farmers market with just a chest freezer full of fish, they sold $450 of fish pretty much unannounced, according to Longton.
“They asked us to come back the following week, and we’ve been selling Port Orford Fish ever since, said Longton.”
Another factor that POSS believes is important in fisheries is traceability – where does the fish come from?
According to Longton, traceability is a huge unknown in the seafood system today.
The opportunity for POSS to buy directly from the fishermen removes the guessing game (questions) if the fish is wild or sold as wild but is from aquaculture, if it’s domestic or does it just say it’s domestic, or if it’s shrimp, is it grown in a swamp in Thailand and labeled as domestic?
In response to these questions, POSS is currently trying to anchor more fishing opportunities, growing the number of boats they buy fish from in Port Orford, in addition to the 20 boats that currently supply the CSF’s demands, thus gradually expanding the local fish market as a whole.
“We are working to find local, traceable markets in our region that we’re not only partnered with, but also share in the same goals — almost like a constituency,“ said Longton.
For Longton and the team at POSS, it surprises them how little the consumer knows about seafood
“If you ask the guy behind the counter, and he tells you something, that may not be true because he may not know where the fish comes from, and same with the guy that dropped it off at the store,” said Longton.
Unlike most store bought fish, POSS’s is all hook and line caught, bled and dispatched in a humane manner. It is then blast frozen with all the freshness of just yesterday’s swimming.
When it comes to freshness, the thought of frozen fish might evoke the idea of the fish not being fresh.
POSS’s state-of-the-art blast freezer technology may remove this perception by locking in freshness immediately with temperatures reaching 40 below.
“Here’s the deal, a lot of people are just skittish of frozen fish, and rightfully so, because a lot of fish is frozen for the wrong reason and in the wrong way,” Longton said. “We, however, blast freeze fish immediately to maintain the best quality.”
Longton states that POSS has never frozen fish to save it. They always freeze fish intentionally and as fast as possible.
“Once you freeze fish, you can buy some time,” Longton said. “You can put it on a train, and as far as the carbon footprint goes, you can really slow things down.”
When shipping blast frozen fish, it goes from freezer to freezer, with a little bit of dry ice. Fish can be shipped frozen all the way across the country without having to go overnight without compromising the fish’s freshness.
“The freezer gives us the capacity to grow as an organization and provide our customers with the guaranteed best quality products.”
POSS currently has 170 registered CSF members. POSS has established drop sites for their products up and down I-5.
Just as a CSA sets up drop points for their consumers, POSS’s sites go from Ashland, all the way to Portland.
There are five sites in the Portland metro area: and also sites in Salem, Eugene, Corvallis and Roseburg. Then in the Rogue Valley, there is a smattering of drop sites too, located in Medford, Ashland, Cave Junction, Jacksonville and Eaglepoint.
“We have planted a tree in all of these places, and now that we have the fruit on the tree, we need to grow.”