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Coastal Tourism: Shop the Dock in Oregon

Oregon’s “Shop the Dock” takes the mystery out of buying seafood off the boat

Download the Summer 2016 Shop the Docks schedule

NEWPORT, Ore. – What started as an experiment to help bring new customers to fishermen who sold seafood off their vessels has quickly become a favorite summer activity for a growing number of  locals and visitors to this central Oregon coast port town.

And in the process, it’s taught direct marketers – and consumers – the value of education.

Sponsored and run by Oregon Sea Grant, “Shop the Dock” is entering its third summer of offering free, guided educational tours of Newport’s commercial fishing docks. Shoppers learn a bit about the fisheries, meet the people who catch the fish, and have an opportunity to buy the freshest salmon, tuna, halibut and crab, usually at prices lower than they’d find at their local supermarkets.

“It’s like going down to the docks with an unintimidating friend who knows the seafood – and knows the fishermen,” said Kaety Jacobson, Sea Grant’s Newport-based Extension fisheries specialist, who runs the program. “We make it easy for people.”

The program has its roots in work Sea Grant was doing more than a decade ago, at a time when fishermen around the country were beginning to look at the direct-marketing approach of farmers’ markets and wondering how they could apply it to their catch.

Historically, most seafood caught off the Oregon coast has been sold to seafood processors (some of which are located on the Newport Bayfront), or to dockside buyers who resell the catch to supermarkets, restaurants and other retailers.

While that’s provided a steady living for generations of fishing families, fluctuating market prices and a growing consumer demand for fish at its freshest led Sea Grant programs along the West Coast – and in other states – to study the ramifications of direct marketing, also known as community-supported fisheries, for seafood. Their combined research led last year to the development of a website, Market Your Catch, aimed at helping West Coast fishermen decide whether direct sales are right for them.

That research, along with other studies dating back at least a decade and conversations with local fishermen, suggested several reasons why consumers might be reluctant to go to the docks on their own in search of seafood, said Jacobson.

“They found that a lot of consumers didn’t buy off the docks because they felt fearful and intimidated,” she said. “They didn’t know if they were allowed be down on the docks – there are a lot of warning signs down there. They didn’t know what to ask for. They didn’t even know they needed to bring coolers and cash” (most boats aren’t equipped to handle credit cards).

Fishermen in Newport had already been direct-marketing for years, but Sea Grant Extension gave it a new twist.

Instead of building, say, a fishermen-sponsored fish market, Jacobson said, “We thought, ‘Why not try to get people to a resource that’s already there?’ We know they probably have fears – but that’s something we could solve with education. And education is something Sea Grant knows how to do.”

Thus it was that in the summer of 2014, Jacobson’s assistant, Ruby Moon – a Newport native well-acquainted with the fishing community – ran a pilot series of “Shop the Dock” walks.

“Ruby did whatever it took to get people to participate,” Jacobson said. “If nobody showed up for a walk, she literally pulled people off the street and told them ‘Come on down to the docks and I’ll teach you how to buy seafood.’”

It didn’t hurt that one of those who did show up was Lori Tobias, a reporter covering the coast for the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian. Her story brought more people to the dock. Although the numbers remained fairly low, it was enough to convince Moon and Jacobson – and the fishermen – to continue the program in 2015.

That year, with more dock walks scheduled – and more coverage by state and local news media – the program really took off; each of the five walks that summer drew between 40 and 70 eager fish-shoppers. Moon drafted other knowledgeable people – including the operator of a floating seafood-market barge one dock over – to help lead tours so two groups could be on the dock at once.

This summer, Jacobson said, “We’re trying to rethink things a little to keep our educators and the fishermen from being overwhelmed. Fifty people is really too many; with a smaller group, everybody gets to ask questions, everybody gets to buy and we don’t overcrowd the docks.”

Tentatively, that means this summer will see more walks spread over two months – July and August (dates to be announced) – and up to several in a single day.

“I think we’re looking at starting a walk every 30 minutes during the morning,” Jacobson said. “By afternoon, it gets pretty hot down there, and hard to find parking, too.”

Moon recently accepted a position as community health director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, so Jacobson is working up a training program to give Sea Grant staff, researchers and other volunteers the knowledge they need to be good tour leaders. She also has one of Sea Grant’s undergraduate Summer Scholars to help with participant surveys and evaluation.

Jacobson, who also works with commercial fishermen on shipboard safety and other issues, calls Shop the Dock one of her favorite programs. “All the folks who help with it love it, too,” she said. “It’s really fun to help people learn about seafood, share recipes, split a fish with them and introduce them to seafood they’ve never heard of, like black cod.”

Fishermen, she said, no longer need to be “sold” on the project. “They see the benefits. We’re bringing the customers directly to their boats, and if they don’t buy that day, they’ll come back another day with their cash, a cooler and maybe a friend.”

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