The past few days have been spent on the coast in the Astoria and Ilwaco areas interviewing some of the LCSG stakeholders who if not most effected, are at minimum in the closest proximity to the actual dredging activities. This concept of level of effect is interesting. How does one judge who is most effected? By length of commitment, by proximity, by livelihood, by money, by life itself? My interviews here with four very different individuals have brought this question to the fore for me.
My first interview (a whopping 2+ hour “interview” where I barely was able to ask two of my pre-written interview questions!) was with a retired crabber who serves as the representative for the crab fisherman’s community not only on the Lower Columbia Solutions Group, but also on half a dozen other economic, natural resource management, and business communities boards along the coast. Calling Dale simply a vocal citizen or advocate would be a momentous understatement. One of the major catalyzing issues to the early sediment management discussions was the occurrence of ocean floor mounding in areas of dredge disposal that was causing wave amplification and thus increasing the risks for fisherman. Dale points out that he has lost 27 friends and colleagues prematurely to “Davy Jones’ Locker,” an unknown number of those can likely be attributed at least in part to this mound induced wave amplification.
Of course, crab fishing on the Oregon and Washington coast is not acting in a vacuum where the only variable weighing upon it is dredging and disposal activities. Additionally, there have been major changes in the political environment most prominently the court decision that secured 50% of the crab catch to Native tribes, an effect of this is that Anglo crab fisherman are taking increasing risks to bring in the same catch as they did ten years ago. And now that the Corps is working to avoid mounding and working towards beach nourishment (also extremely important to local fisherman as many have housing and business investments on those same eroding beaches), crab fisherman also have an interest in seeing these new shallow water disposal techniques not endanger the crabs that represent their very livelihood. For Dale and his colleagues, dredging activities can literally mean the difference between life or death.
From Dale at the Port of Ilwaco, I traveled back across the 4-mile bridge that traverses the Columbia River to Astoria where I met with Pat, an extension services manager who was tasked as one of the original conveners of the LCSG more than a decade ago and who has spent much of his career in a participant or convener role of multistakeholder collaborative efforts. Pat provided a drastically different perspective on the LCSG from that of the majority of the stakeholders I’ve talked with thus, suggesting even that the LCSG has run its course—a conversation surely for a different blog post. An interesting point he made in terms of affected parties is to claim that the Port of Portland (and the other inland, upstream smaller ports) are really the most affected parties in this situation, even though they aren’t remotely involved. He considers them the most affected because of the billions of dollars of commerce that comes into those ports thanks exclusively to the dredging activities that keep the channel deep enough for the large ships to come upriver. If we as a nation didn’t deem keeping those channels of commerce open, then there would be no wasted millions of cubic yards of sand each year, no concerns over mound creation and increased fisherman hazards, no concerns over that sand being dumped much like a tsuanami on crabs and other marina fauna, and who knows, with sand naturally allowed to stay in the river it might even makes its way to the mouth and there may not be as severe of erosion and sand starvation. Despite the central role the Port’s needs play, they have not ponied up any money or representation in recent years. I don’t know that I agree with Pat’s appraisal of this situation as representative of the ultimate failure of this group, however, it does cause pause as we survey the success and obstacles facing the future of sustainable, beneficial sediment management at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Finally, a trip to the NOAA offices to visit Curtis brought back to center the role of the natural world. This project has opened an unexpected door for research of the benthic environment and especially the going-on’s of crab down there. Amazingly, we just don’t know that much about crabs, despite the fact they represent the largest sector of the fishing economy in the state of Washington. With cameras, acoustic tags, and many other new experimental designs we are learning much about the life of crabs. Early evidence suggests that crabs may not be overly effected by the more dynamic near shore disposal techniques, however, the jury is very much still out. Whether or not neutral or negative (or maybe even positive) effects are shown in the end, one could easily argue that these little crabs are the most affected as they physically get scooped up by the dredges and have the sand unceremoniously dumped atop them under forces similar to a tsunami for humans.
Small coastal ports, crab fisherman, economy-driving inland ports, the beaches, the crabs themselves… who is the most affected? Who knows?! Maybe it doesn’t matter. Probably it doesn’t matter. There is no reason to figure out who the Most Oppressed People Ever (MOPEs) are, there is reason to work to end oppression. In this situation, it doesn’t matter who is quantifiably most affected, what matters is a huge and diverse group of people, animals, and landscapes are drastically affected and we should work to figure out how the situation can best serve all of them.