This Industry Viewpoint was authored by the Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee. It’s not a perfect fit for this section, but given their status as a nonprofit with a unique point of view I decided to relax the usual restrictions.
Around the globe commercial fishermen and owners of undersea telecommunications cable are typically at odds—cables get laid across prime fishing grounds, then fishermen are told not to fish near them, angering fishermen. On a global scale, more submarine cables are severed or damaged by fishing vessels than any other cause, frustrating cable owners.
Against this history, the Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee, Inc. is celebrating this week 20 years of a unique partnership between these usual adversaries. In 1998 an extraordinary partnership consisting of a few Oregon trawler owner/operators and a company planning an undersea cable from Oregon to Alaska formed. Both were initially wary of the other, but in a somewhat amazing story, both sides found common ground in a pact to minimize interference with the other. Today, tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook join global telecom giants such as Verizon and Tata Telecommunications and smaller regional telecom providers in an unusual alliance to protect fishing grounds and subsea cable infrastructure that is the backbone of the internet. They started with some goals, which haven’t changed in the organization’s 20 years:
- To continue communication, coordination and cooperation between members of the Oregon commercial fishing and fiber-optic cable industries
- To minimize interference with commercial fishing activities
- To have a 24 hour manned hot line for fishermen to call if they find their gear is stuck near a submarine cable
- To release fishermen from liability for accidental damage to a cable provided that they follow a set of simple protocols established by the fishermen’s cable committee
Prior to the OFCC’s formation, and continuing in most parts of the world, the cable companies would ask that fishermen don’t trawl over their cables. The evidence is that many fishermen ignore those requests and cables get broken. In response, cable owners would sometimes file lawsuits to recover damages, and to make an example of them. In Oregon, the fishermen suggested a radically different approach—that fishermen be allowed to fish over buried cable and only need to avoid places where the cable couldn’t be fully buried. The fishing fleet responded to this act of faith by following the protocols and avoiding the few cable exposures while fishing carefully over the buried cable. In 20 years, there hasn’t been one cable “hit” or break on the OFCC cables, remarkable by global standards.
When asked what is the key to this unlikely success story, OFCC chairman Scott McMullen praised his cohesive Board of Directors—executives of telecoms and tech companies and respected leaders in the commercial fishermen industry who built a relationship on mutual understanding, respect and trust. “When we meet, we listen to each other, and in twenty years we have never had a split vote on an issue because of the respect we have for one another. If one person disagrees with a proposal, we modify it either until all can support it or we drop it.”
Because the OFCC works so well and closely with trawlers, cable companies, and state government agencies, it has made Oregon a desirable place to land undersea cables and has an excellent record of keeping those cables safe from damage by fishing gear. Companies looking to lay a cable off Oregon receive assistance from knowledgeable OFCC fishermen in finding routes that will provide good burial. The cooperation between industries helps to speed up the permitting process with the State of Oregon, which has one of the shortest permitting paths in the nation furthering Oregon’s preeminence as a desirable place to land a cable.
The Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee is a mutual benefit nonprofit 501C6 headquartered in Astoria, Oregon. Our Board is comprised of fishermen directors from the five major Oregon ports and directors representing telecoms, tech companies, and science cables laid off Oregon. Scott McMullen was one of the founders and has been the chairman since the OFCC’s beginning.
For more information about the OFCC, call us at 503 325-2285 or email Staff@ofcc.com
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