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Ginny Goblirsch and the Humble Beginnings of SAFE

Ginny Goblirsch talking with a fisherman on the Newport docks early in the SAFE program.. “The whole idea was to get them [scientists and fishermen] talking with each other,” says Virginia “Ginny” Goblirsch, who spearheaded the creation of SAFE in 2002. As Goblirsch explains it, fishermen often distrust scientists because they associate them with regulators. As for scientists, beyond often mistrusting what fishermen tell them, “Sometimes it’s kind of intimidating to walk out on the docks,” she says. Nonetheless, Goblirsch saw that the two very different groups could benefit from collaborating. It was just a matter of getting them together so that “they would start to know that they have mutual interests and they could learn from each other and help each other out.” It also meant keeping them from each other’s throats.

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the west coast’s commercial groundfish industry had all but vanished. Dwindling stocks forced regulators to cut back on the size of allowable catches, which in turn put many fishermen out of business. The result was what has been called the “West coast groundfish disaster.” Regulatory meetings during the disaster were heated. Fishermen blamed scientists for the new regulations, and there were other squabbles. Fishermen had been telling Goblirsch for years that scientists were littering the ocean with their research equipment, which fishermen said destroyed their gear and was potentially life-threatening.

If anyone could bridge the divide between fishermen and scientists, it was Goblirsch.

The 62-year-old Goblirsch is a fixture in the fishing town of Newport, Oregon, and her cramped bedroom office shows it. Among the normal workplace trappings—a full filing cabinet and shelves stacked with books—there is a framed copy of National Fisherman magazine from 2001, in which Goblirsch was named “High Liner of the Year,” a huge honor. And there are others. Goblirsch’s walls are covered with plaques and framed certificates. Many are from Oregon Sea Grant, where Goblirsch was a driving force from 1987 until she retired in 2003. Others are from National Sea Grant as well as the Newport Chamber of Commerce. One plaque from Oregon Sea Grant reads, The Experienced Faculty Recognition Award. “I call that one the old geezer award,” she says, laughing.

Among her many accomplishments, Goblirsch was instrumental in getting NOAA’s fleet into Newport’s Yaquina Bay. She has also helped her husband, Herb, run their fishing business since they married over 30 years ago. This perhaps explains a little of why Goblirsch has been so successful in her small fishing community. Wearing stylish glasses and a colorful scarf, she has the bearing and demeanor of an urban professional. But Ginny Goblirsch is still a fisherman’s wife.

When Goblirsch married Herb—who today looks a little like Ernest Hemingway in his Cuba days—she joined him on his trips to catch albacore, salmon, and Dungeness crab. On their boat, she listened to the endless chatter on Herb’s many crackling radios. That’s when it hit her. The fishermen she heard over the airwaves were using all kinds of specialized terms. They had numerous details about what type of gear to use and when, what the ocean conditions were like. They even talked about how temperature and time of the month were affecting their catch. And she realized: “It’s not as if they’re just throwing a hook in the water. These guys really know their stuff.” This awareness stayed etched in her mind for years, and, eventually, she would help OSU scientists come to the same realization.

Ginny Goblirsch todayGoblirsch began working with OSU Extension in 1977. She started at the bottom, as a secretary at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. But eventually, as she puts it, “I became more and more interested in the Extension side of the organization, and how it could be used to reach out to the commercial fishing industry.” Through pluck and determination, she worked her way up the ladder, eventually becoming chair of Oregon Sea Grant Extension for Lincoln County.

Working with scientists from OSU and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) as well as commercial fishermen, Goblirsch got to know and became friendly with people from both worlds. She saw how much both scientists and fishermen knew about the oceans. She also saw how often they were at odds. So, in April 2002, Goblirsch, along with Dave Sampson of ODFW, decided to try resolving these conflicts and maybe even get the groups working together.

The first Scientists and Fishermen Exchange (SAFE) meeting was held—as were many future meetings—above Englund Marine & Industrial Supply, a popular fishermen’s supply store on the north side of Yaquina Bay. Goblirsch and Sampson kept the group small—fewer than 15 people. The two were also selective in who they chose for that first meeting. As Goblirsch puts it, they picked scientists and fishermen that they thought “were knowledgeable and could listen to others without going on the defensive.” Like meetings to come, there was pizza and soda and a topic for discussion. The first topic was fittingly titled, “Possible Collaboration with Fishermen on Research Projects.” What happened next would have surprised anyone who had been at those contentious regulatory meetings: the scientists and fishermen actually got along.

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