After nearly a decade of cooperation with scientists, government entities and conservation groups, Aaron Longton can bring his "sustainable" fish to market.
Direct sale to Rogue Valley consumers is the culmination of efforts by the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team to create and market a new brand: Port Orford Sustainable Seafood. Customers can purchase the wild, line-caught fish at Ashland Food Co-op and the Hillcrest Growers and Craft Market in Medford.
Feasability studies indicated that the Rogue Valley, with its awareness of "sustainability" and support for locally produced foods, would be an ideal location for POORT to launch a yearlong pilot project, said Leesa Cobb, executive director of the organization.
Early this summer, Longton started delivering the Port Orford fleet's weekly fresh catch to the Co-op and Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine. He brings about 50 pounds of flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed fillets to the growers market.
"A lot of experts will actually tell you that it's better than fresh," says Longton, a fisherman and POORT's board president. "We're not freezing fish because it's near the end of its shelf life."
In fact, fisherman freeze everything caught in excess of their weekly orders, Longton says. No older than a couple of months, the inventory ensures they'll have fish to sell even when weather conditions keep the boats in port.
"There's always a steady supply of fish," Cobb says, adding that Port Orford's is a year-round fishery.
The area's largest haul is Dungeness crab, followed by black cod. The significance of species like near-shore rockfish prompted Cobb, a fisherman's wife and Port Orford native, to organize POORT in 2001 to ensure local management and input. Port Orford's isolation challenged fishermen to participate in the decision-making process, Cobb says.
"Small-scale fishers in Oregon are kind of going away," she says.
Located in Curry County between Bandon and Brookings, the port of Port Orford is exposed to open sea instead of sheltering in a bay. Its hydraulic lift system for launching boats is unique among West Coast fishing communities.
In 2006, POORT designated a marine stewardship area that covers 1,320 square miles, extending 30 miles north to south and 18 miles offshore and including the New, Elk and Sixes rivers watersheds. The area hasn't gained official government recognition, but POORT members are hopeful that the move will ultimately bring more attention to their mission and practices.
"It's our traditional fishing grounds," Longton says. "There's a different set of ethics there."
POORT aims to ensure the abundance of fish stocks by harvesting according to science and access plans that mirror principles of ecosystem-based management, according to its Web site. A nonprofit organization, POORT receives funding from state and federal governments and conservation groups, Cobb says.
On track to harvest 19,000 pounds of fish by November, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood relies first on its cooperative of three boats before purchasing from 15 of Port Orford's fleet of 40 others. About 98 percent of its fish is still sold to traditional wholesalers, but securing an equitable income for fishermen also is one of POORT's main goals.
"It's kind of like a social-justice thing to get a higher price for the fishermen," Longton says.
Purchasing Port Orford Sustainable Seafood hasn't raised the price of fish dishes at Larks, says executive chef Damon Jones. Running black cod, ling cod, rockfish and tuna on a seasonal specials menu, Jones says he usually sells out of his weekly supply -- delivered Fridays -- over the weekend.
"I was actually able to drop the price a little bit," Jones says. "I've eliminated the middle man.
"We're extremely happy with it."
Growers market customers have been no less pleased, Longton and Cobb say. Retail prices run from $8.50 per pound for albacore tuna to $13.75 for black cod, also known as sablefish.
"The feedback ... has been tremendously rewarding for us," Cobb says. "We kind of lost that connection in the fishermen -- the connection with the public."