Back in the late 1990s, Oregon's groundfish industry was in a tailspin. Over previous decades, the federal government had encouraged expansion of the industry to promote domestic harvest over international competition. Then experts realized several types of groundfish — a category that includes rockfish, perch and lingcod — were overharvested.
“Basically the whole groundfish industry came crashing down,” Ginny Goblirsch told Think Out Loud recently. Goblirsch was an extension agent with a program called Oregon Sea Grant at the time. “All of these people were basically thrown out of work.”
Oregon Sea Grant, based at Oregon State University, connects people in marine industries with university researchers. Its goal is to increase education about and conservation of marine resources.
The program has a number of extension agents in towns all along the Oregon Coast, which put them in a unique position to assist affected fisherman during the groundfish crisis. Goblirsch helped coordinate a network of fishermen’s wives to put affected families in touch with resources to help them get by.
“The people were just so depressed, they were giving up. Families were living in absolute terror of what was going to happen,” Goblirsch said. “And they did not know which way to turn. So we provided that liaison … to help them go through the agencies.”
Many of the fishermen had never experienced unemployment before and weren’t used to accessing government benefits. The network helped them sign up for unemployment benefits, food stamps and job training.
The goal, Goblirsch said, was “to provide some basic funding for families to survive, to pay their basic bills, while one of their family members went through job retraining.” People who could no longer get work in the fishing industry became barbers, welders and truck drivers.
According to a budget memo obtained by the Washington Post, the Trump administration is considering drastic cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association budget, including defunding the Sea Grant program, which operates in every coastal and Great Lakes state.
Onno Husing is the director of Lincoln County Planning and Development. He said Oregon Sea Grant’s handling of the groundfish crisis was one of the program’s finest moments, and also emblematic of the way the program helps marine communities. Oregon Sea Grant’s extension agents are known and trusted, he said, and those relationships are crucial when there are crises in marine industries.
Although the bulk of Oregon Sea Grant’s funding comes from the federal government, Husing points out that “our communities also invest in Sea Grant.”
Lincoln County has established funding districts that provide matching funds for the program.
“I don’t think there’s any better evidence of their relevance to our communities than that they find a way of persuading people on the Oregon Coast of reaching into their own pockets and help fund the organization,” Husing said.
Oregon Sea Grant isn’t always dealing with industry-transforming shifts like the groundfish crisis.
Shelby Walker is the director of Oregon Sea Grant, and described its function as helping to “support informed decision making — that science-based decision making that’s really so important when we think about a lot of the coastal and marine issues that are facing our coastal communities today.”
She said several of Oregon Sea Grants extension agents are currently working with the crabbing industry, trying to address the issue of crabbing gear tangling up whales off the Oregon Coast. The goal is to bring the stakeholders together to “get out in front of issues,” usually with the aim of finding non-regulatory fixes to urgent problems.
Husing compared the work of Sea Grant to that of agricultural extension programs across the country.
It “allows us to leverage so much information from the university, capitalize on opportunities, stop bad things from happening,” he said.
About 40 people are employed directly by Sea Grant — many are in Corvallis and Newport, where Sea Grant operates the Visitor Center at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Oregon Sea Grant gets $2.4 million in federal funding for its $5 million budget. Walker says Oregon Sea Grant generates a net economic benefit of $8 million.
This isn’t the first time that Sea Grant’s funding has been threatened. Husing remembered the same thing occurring in 1981, when the Reagan administration targeted Sea Grant. Congress stepped in to save it that time.
“Congress had some real champions of the Sea Grant program back then,” said Husing, citing former Oregon Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, along with Sen. Earnest Hollings from South Carolina and Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska.
Walker was in Washington, D.C., last week meeting with the directors of the other Sea Grant programs around the country. Many of them were reaching out to their congressional delegations to ask for support in the budget.
She said Oregon’s delegation, which is mostly Democrats, supported the program. And she said directors from states with more Republicans in their delegations “were getting a lot of support that was bipartisan.”
To hear more from Think Out Loud's conversation about Sea Grant, click the "play" arrow at the top of the page.