Zeke Grader dies at 68; advocate for commercial fishing

Zeke Grader, an advocate for commercial fishing who fought to protect fish as well as the people who catch them, has died. He was 68.

Grader's Sept. 7 death from pancreatic cancer at a San Francisco hospice was confirmed by Lois Prentice, his wife of 40 years.

Grader retired in June from the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. He directed the federation since its formation in 1976 and he headed the institute, an offshoot organization he founded in 1992.

"One of his lasting legacies was to build a bridge between blue-collar fishermen and environmental communities," said his successor, Tim Sloane. "He was an absolute straight talker who never minced words and never tried to snow anyone."

Although Grader grew up along the fishing docks of Mendocino County, he later threw himself into ocean-related problems that had their roots many miles inland. With king salmon and other species requiring clear, swift streams on their journey to the sea, Grader fought for restrictions on logging, mining, pesticides, oil drilling, dams — anything that he thought might foul the waters, block the streams or hurt the fish.

In an interview with the Seafood Choices Alliance, a sustainable seafood group, he said his activism was motivated not by politics but by a rapidly dwindling fishery.

"I think it was not so much a conscious decision of wanting to be a conservationist or environmentalist," Grader said. "It was simply an economic necessity. If you didn't have fish, you didn't have fishing."

In 2005, he said that 80% of the families that used to fish for a living along the California coast had left the business.

Grader vigorously backed a 1988 state law calling for a conservation plan to double California's wild salmon population. In 1992, he lobbied for the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a sweeping reform measure that included diversion of water to wildlife and fish management.

Capable of charm offensives and conversational combat, he also was a moving force in rules protecting fish habitat and helping out-of-work fishermen.

"He was our generation's greatest advocate for wild salmon and the people and communities that depend on them," U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said in a Facebook post.

Born in Bellingham, Wash., on Sept. 6, 1947, William F. Grader Jr. spent what he later called a "free-range childhood" in Fort Bragg, Calif., where his family ran a fish wholesale business.

In addition, his parents ran a weekly newspaper. His father later became an aide to local congressman Clem Miller and a deputy secretary for natural resources under Gov. Pat Brown.

In his teen years, Grader helped fishermen unload their catch. When he attended Sonoma State, he lived in a houseboat and ran a branch of his family's business on the Sausalito docks.

After service in the Marines, Grader received a law degree from the University of San Francisco.

Knowing the ups and downs of the fish business all too well, his father had urged him into the law, Grader's wife recalled.

"But as soon as he got that degree, he said, 'OK, Dad. I'm going fishin'!'"

In fact, he used his legal training to litigate for cleaner water and persuade fishermen to form what seemed like unlikely coalitions with environmentalists, and, later, local Native American groups.

"On their own, individual fishermen or small groups of fishermen were nothing," Prentice said. "But together they were powerful."

Twelve years after starting with the fledgling Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., he received the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Hero award.

"His bottom line was always: Is it good for the fish — and can it be done?" said Dave Bitts, a Eureka-based salmon fisherman who is the federation's president.

In addition to his wife, Grader's survivors include his mother, Geraldine; sisters Allison and Lindsay; and brother, Samuel.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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