Research, safety, education part of outreach

Washington is well known for its marine life and, with the help of Washington State University’s Grays Harbor Marine Resources Program, related natural resource industries are flourishing.

Aligned with the Washington Sea Grant Program at the University of Washington since 1979, the Marine Resources Program (MRP) provides research, technical assistance and education to marine workers and surrounding communities to improve marine industries and conservation.

Steve Harbell, county director and marine resources agent for WSU Extension in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, said the program has been vital to supporting and advancing Washington’s marine economy.

“We’re in a position to sustain these industries and help them overcome challenges,” Harbell said.

Tackling issues head on
Enabled by its strong academic core, the MRP utilizes research as a key ingredient for understanding and confronting industry dilemmas.

“It is important for us to have knowledge of industry research,” Harbell said. “From there, we can bring information to people who can then get involved in the process of research.”

Among the biggest challenges facing the marine industry are pests choking out estuary systems and burrowing shrimp species.

An estuary — a water passage where the tide meets a river current — is a critical breeding ground for shellfish and juvenile marine species. However, invasive species such as Spartina or cordgrass are drastically impacting estuary habitats. Likewise, burrowing shrimp species alter intertidal areas, which can diminish habitat quality.

Since fish and shellfish cultivation produces more than 65 million pounds of fish and shellfish annually for a $50 million value to the Washington economy, problems such as Spartina and burrowing shrimp can blunt production and profits.

Understanding gained by researching these critical issues can lead to solutions such as the testing and application of physical, chemical and biological controls, and mariner and community education.

Buoying safety
In addition to the advantages that research provides, the MRP offers technical assistance to support other critical components of the marine industry, including weather forecasting, vessel maintenance and stability, marketing assistance and trade adjustment assistance.

“We essentially provide a way for fishermen to be safe, to maintain their vessels and equipment, and to market their products,” Harbell said.

The availability of technical assistance has decreased the risk often associated with ocean fishing.

According to the MRP website, the more notable improvements are the outreach programs, made possible through the Coastal Storms Initiative, which have provided support for the installation and maintenance of a second weather buoy at the mouth of the Columbia River. The buoy has been an asset to forecasting marine weather and sea conditions for fishermen.

Additionally, technical assistance workshops offered through WSU Extension enable commercial salmon fishermen to be eligible for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which provides compensation due to foreign import competition.

“These programs assist the industry in sustaining solid levels of production so it can thrive and contribute to the state,” Harbell said.

Beyond the sea
With more than 60 percent of the nation’s edible seafood on the line, education remains a prime factor in driving industry prosperity.

The MRP has trained and certified more than 1,500 fishermen in first aid; vessel safety; onboard equipment safety; fire, flood and man-overboard safety; and proper fishing procedures for tribal and commercial fishermen, Harbell said.

Such intense education has led to significant changes in the ways fishermen prepare for emergencies, which annually saves many lives, $800,000 in vessels and $1 million in fishing gear. Harbell said.

Educational opportunities also are extended to local communities, children and consumers, including:

• shellfish harvesting information to shoreline property owners, enabling local individuals to generate additional seafood bounties and revenues;
• youth camp and after-school programs emphasizing marine life and conservation;
• courses in seafood quality control, handling, safety, nutrition and preparation;
• daily radio broadcasts detailing current marine issues; and
• publications explaining industry news and developments.

“We’re trying to get information out in lots of different ways to different groups,” Harbell said.

Into the future
Though significant staffing and facilities growth are not expected due to budget limitations, Harbell sees the future of the MRP as a continuation of existing projects — especially those in technical assistance and education — to improve industry function and success.

New projects, such as seafood retailing and marketing programs, likely will be developed as well.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities and needs in the industry,” Harbell said.

Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, he said, “grow more oysters and clams than anywhere on the West Coast and have products available on the eastern side of the state that we didn’t have 10 years ago. If you like seafood, you’re being well served by the marine sector in Washington.”

WSU at Large is an occasional feature of WSU Today that highlights people and programs at one of the 70-plus outreach sites that the university operates throughout the state.

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