Ports Are Keeping Oregon Competitive
Small to large, ocean to river, Oregon ports provide economic backbone for commercial fishing – and much more
May 1, 2019
Strung along a 363-mile coastline and on river banks inland, Oregon's ports – from the larger coastal harbors with international shipping and regional-scale fishing fleets to smaller, shallower-draft sites with limited capabilities – are integral to the lifestyles and economies of their communities and the state.
Commercial fisheries and working waterfronts remain viable, visible pieces of Oregon's coastal and state economy. Charleston, Garibaldi, Astoria/Warrenton, Depoe Bay, Newport, Winchester Bay, Port Orford, Gold Beach and Brookings all feature thriving working waterfronts.
In 2016, NOAA Fisheries statistics show that Oregon's coastal ports produced 15,759 direct and indirect jobs and contributed $904 million to the state's gross domestic product. Overall, Oregon's commercial fisheries generated an estimated $544 million in household income, about half of it from the distant at-sea and Alaska fisheries. Oregon finished sixth nationally in overall fish landings, with 291 million pounds valued at $157.7 million. Market analysts say commercial fisheries in some coastal communities provide 25 to 35 percent of all annual earned income. The seafood industry also supports fish processing plants and other associated businesses and services. And a 2014 study backed by the Oregon Ports Association indicated that one of every six jobs in Oregon are port-related, either directly or indirectly tied to cargo, recreation, industrial, commercial and other activities at Oregon's ports.
While Oregon's 23 port districts play an integral role for commercial fisheries, providing vital marine services, a place for fishermen to sell their catches and call home, and safe havens from the ocean's nastier whims, they also foster economic development and growth that extends well beyond their maritime roots.
As sea-river-land interfaces, they provide strategic hubs for all sorts of commerce.
No matter how large or small, port officials say maintaining traditional services and values while adapting to changing markets, climate, and social attitudes, as well as rising costs and more stringent regulations requires diversity – making the best use of available land, labor and natural resources.
Coos Bay – Big, Bold, Diverse
Coos Bay is Oregon's largest deep-draft coastal harbor and the main economy of the region lies in the timber, seafood and tourism industry. The city of Coos Bay – the largest on Oregon's southern coast – serves as a multi-modal connection point by sea, rail, air and roadway.
The International Port of Coos Bay fosters business development, capital improvement, and public-private partnerships to promote the region's economic growth. Basically, the port gives fishermen, farmers, loggers, and others the ability to transport their products throughout the state, nation and world.
And 2018 was a banner year, port CEO John Burns reported.
The port's Charleston Marina is the third largest working waterfront on Oregon's coast, supporting about 250 commercial vessels that landed almost 20 million pounds of commercial fish in 2018 with an estimated value of $27.5 million. It features an ice dock, boatyard, U.S. Coast Guard installation, and marina RV park, and serves commercial fishing and seafood processing, recreational fishing and boating, tourism, and retail and other commercial interests.
Burns said they installed a state-of-the-art storm water treatment system at the shipyard, which uses an innovative enhanced sand filtration technology "to significantly improve water runoff from the shipyard into the slough."
Port officials also continued to work closely with environmental agencies "to properly deconstruct and dispose of the many derelict vessels" in the Charleston Marina.
The port is also the non‐federal sponsor for navigation system maintenance and improvements, including the jetties at the mouth of Coos Bay, the channel leading to the Charleston Marina, and the deep draft channel that provides access to the upper portions of Coos Bay, about 15 miles from the bay entrance. Oregon depends on its waterways – channels, rivers, harbors and bays – for commercial fishing, transporting goods, tourism and recreation.
"One key element in preserving the viability of this resource is dredging" Burns noted. "These efforts are much more than removal of large quantities of sediment, but rather are essential waterway management. Routine dredging as well as widening and deepening of channels is needed to accommodate a modern fleet of vessels."
Cargo vessels are getting bigger to maximize shipping efficiency and reduce costs, which has led to multiple widening and deepening projects in the channel during the past century, including Coos Bay harbor.
Burns said the US Army Corps of Engineers allocated funds to include river miles 12 to 15 during pending annual maintenance dredging of the Coos Bay channel – a section that has not received maintenance dredging since 2010, which limits deep draft vessel traffic. The scheduled dredging will return the channel to its authorized depth (-37 feet). The port is also moving ahead in its channel modification project, which will deepen and widen the Coos Bay navigation channel (-45 feet and 450 feet of nominal width), making it more passable for larger cargo ships and enhancing prospects for international trade.
International trade supports about 78,000 manufacturing jobs and about 6,000 businesses throughout Oregon.
In 2016, Oregon exported about $22 billion in goods and importing about $17.6 billion in goods. Top export partners include China, Malaysia, Canada, Vietnam and Japan. Main import partners include Ireland, Canada, China, Japan and South Korea.
The port also began its new role as owner-operator of the Coos Bay Rail Line on November 1, 2018.
"Our rail is a key element for local shippers as it increases efficiency while cutting cost of delivering goods nationally and internationally," said Burns.
The 134-mile short line railroad runs through Coos, Douglas, and Lane counties, extending from Coquille to the National Railway network at the Union Pacific interchange yard in Eugene. It consists of nine tunnels, three swing‐span bridges, more than 150 water crossings, and more than 40 at‐grade and signal crossings, providing an essential link between Coos Bay and other southwestern Oregon communities, as well as "efficient, cost‐effective access to regional, national, and global markets."
"Ensuring rail connectivity for the region is critical to maintaining the existing businesses utilizing the line, as well as cultivating an environment which can foster future economic development," Burns said. Shippers on the line provide family-wage jobs to nearly 1,000 people throughout southwestern Oregon. Those businesses, Burns noted, depend on rail as a competitive transportation option with adequate capacity to move goods to market.
In December 2018, the port received a $20 million award through the Better Utilizing Infrastructure to Leverage Development (BUILD) program to support its rail line bridge rehabilitation project. The award allowed the port to invest an additional $25 million (with a $5 million match from the port) to improve the rail line. The funds went toward rehabilitating all 38 timber bridges on the line. Repair work was done on 31 bridges in 2018, with the remaining bridges scheduled for completion in 2019. The port is also finishing up a comprehensive rehabilitation effort on the line's nine tunnels.
"As a primary economic driver for the region and state, we are firmly committed to the strong continuation of ongoing projects and initiating new economic development activities," Burns said, noting that they intend to "build a community and regional economy that is true to its roots, while striving to cultivate opportunities to expand and diversify the economic fabric of the region."
New Tacks and Course Changes
Other Oregon ports are looking at ways to – within the limits of the resources available within their districts – create more opportunities and fund on-going operations and expansion that enhance their regions and the state.
In March, commissioners for the Port of Astoria – located at the mouth of the Columbia River on Oregon's northern coast – voted to charge a $300 harbor maintenance fee for each incoming commercial vessel longer than 250 feet. When the fee goes into effect next July, Astoria will become one of only two ports on the Pacific Coast (the other is Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) to charge such a fee.
The funds collected will go toward the cost of maintaining the port's Pier 1. Ships ordered into port for repairs by the Coast Guard often dock at the pier, which serves as the primary berth for log and cruise ships. Port staff estimate the cost of maintaining the pier at more than $480,000 per fiscal year.
The decision has generated criticism, including objections from the Columbia River Steamship Operators' Association, which represents oceangoing vessel operators on the river, but maritime attorney Michael Haglund said the fees are legitimate and appropriate, tied directly as they are to the costs of maintaining the pier.
Becoming a key participant in Oregon's emergency preparedness is another option port officials are considering.
In April, a team of researchers and investigators assessed the port's readiness to assist in the region's recovery after a major earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The assessment is part of Oregon Governor Kate Brown's effort to determine how seaports, airports and railroads on the Oregon coast might respond in the wake of the quake.
"The government needs to be able to bring in a lot of resources," said Patrick Massey, regional director of the US Department of Homeland Security's Cyber & Infrastructure Security Agency. "The general working assumption is that air and sea will play a bigger role than ground transport."
The investigation team, which included Homeland Security risk advisers, will evaluate their findings and create a report with ideas on how state officials can enhance emergency readiness. It could lead to federal funding for disaster preparedness, which, in turn, could attract state and federal financing for the port to make vital repairs or replace
Jim Knight, the port's executive director, said the assessment is an example of how federal agencies consider the port critical to emergency recovery efforts. He called the port a "cornerstone" for recovery.
"We are the connection north and south, east and west," he noted.
The Little Port That Could
It's not just the big ports that are making potentially big economic splashes.
"All I want to see is a long line of boats out there."
Those words uttered a decade ago by Bud Shoemake, long-time manager at the Port of Toledo, seem almost prophetic now. These days, the port's full-service shipyard generally has a long line of vessels of all shapes and sizes either waiting to be hauled ashore, or already onshore in various stages of maintenance or overhaul.
An initial $1.5 million gamble port commissioners made in December 2010 by purchasing the former Fred Wahl boatyard seven miles inland at Sturgeon Bend on the Yaquina River has evolved into a thriving enterprise. In fact, the rejuvenated boatyard has forged a reputation as one of Oregon's – and the Pacific Coast's – premier vessel service and repair facilities.
Port commissioners, Shoemake and his staff have guided a revitalization project that in 2016 added new haul-out piers and a 660-ton mobile lift that "can handle all of our local fleet and anything else that can navigate the river to the boatyard," Shoemake said.
Economic analysts say commercial fishing generates about 4,000 jobs and about 15 percent of earned income in the state's central coast communities of Newport, Toledo, and Depoe Bay. The Oregon Transportation Commission considers the port and its boatyard essential to maintaining Oregon's economic competitiveness by keeping commercial fishing and research vessels shipshape and seaworthy, and connections to markets intact and fully functional. Transportation officials say the port and boatyard are ideally situated at an intersection of river, railroad and highway (Oregon's famous Highway 20 and just a few miles from Highway 101) – all on a 20-acre sliver of land near the small, industrious city of Toledo.
Fishermen say they like having the option on the easily navigable, well-marked Yaquina River. The do-it-yourself open yard provides access to preferred independent contractors, and being close to homeport is a bonus for the Newport-based fleet.
Efforts like these at Oregon ports large and small are creating a rising economic tide that fisheries managers say bodes well for the future in an industry that ebbs and flows amid changing economic currents and the whims of nature.