When Port of Los Angeles officials approved a plan in 1981 to invest millions of dollars to overhaul the dilapidated facilities at Fish Harbor on Terminal Island, commercial fishermen thought their fortunes had finally changed.
The fishermen, many of whom had complained loudly for years that the Harbor Department was indifferent to their needs, had spent nearly two years working closely with port officials to prepare the voluminous plan, tossing out several versions before the final one was agreed upon.
Now, more than four years later, there are few visible signs of change at Fish Harbor. While a marine research facility for USC has been built in the area, improvements to commercial fishing facilities have been limited to some upgrading of the piers, better electrical hookups, three pay phones and two portable toilets--the only toilets available for the 125 or so fishermen who anchor their vessels there regularly.
"I think it is kind of funny that of all the millions of dollars the Harbor Department gets in federal subsidies, and all the other millions it spends, we get a couple of outhouses," said a fishermen who would identify himself only as Larry. "I think it's a joke, really."
"I don't think the Harbor Department has really done anything to hurt Fish Harbor," said Bob Allen, a vice president at CHB Foods Inc., which operates the only remaining tuna cannery in the area. "But I don't think they have done anything to make it a positive environment either."
Port officials are now preparing an updated study on commercial fishing facilities at Fish Harbor, as well as those in San Pedro at the municipal fish markets and the adjacent Southern Pacific Slip.
The study, which is expected to be delivered to the Board of Harbor Commissioners within several weeks, comes at a time when the market tenants, as well as a number of boat owners who tie up their vessels at the Southern Pacific Slip, are protesting a port proposal to build a fireboat station at the northern end of the markets. The two groups contend that the station would not only eliminate a major portion of the market's dock space, but would split the market from the slip where fishermen tie up their vessels.
Port planners, who have been ordered by commissioners to provide them with more information on alternative sites for the fireboat station, have declined to discuss the study until it is presented to commissioners. Nor will they say whether it is likely that recommendations to renovate or expand commercial fishing facilities will be included in the document.
"We're in the process of re-evaluating the needs of the fishermen in the port," said Sid Robinson, the port's planning director. "And we're really not sure where the industry is heading now."
Despite charges by fishermen that the port has been reluctant to invest in adequate facilities for their industry, Robinson, as well as Pete Mandia, the port's deputy planning director, said the port has carried out major elements of the 1981 plan that called for improvements at the fish markets and the Southern Pacific Slip.
For instance, they said, the port has completed a $1.2-million renovation project at the markets, where many local anglers unload their catches. At the Southern Pacific Slip, the port has spent nearly $200,000 for electrical improvements.
Nevertheless, at Fish Harbor--where plans called for the port to invest more than $24 million to construct a new basin to house the commercial fishing fleet and provide it with support facilities such as storage lockers, showers, a chandlery and a restaurant--progress has been slow or nonexistent.
Port officials maintain that since the report was completed, the Harbor Department has spent about $1 million to improve facilities at Fish Harbor. Most of the money was used to improve the three wooden piers in the area, which fisherman claim were not only in disrepair, but unsafe.
In addition, the officials said, the port is reviewing a study by the Army Corps of Engineers on the problem of wave surges in the area. The Harbor Department has repeatedly maintained that the problem, which has plagued the area for years and at times has damaged boats by whipping them against or under the piers, must be solved before any major projects can be undertaken.
But they also acknowledge that plans to renovate Fish Harbor, as well as other commercial fishing facilities throughout the port, have been in a state of continual review by the port the past two or three years as cannery closures, foreign competition and poor fishing conditions have thrown the industry into a state of flux.
Port statistics show that the number of people employed in the commercial fishing industry throughout the port has declined to 3,560, from 4,803 in 1982, while the lease fees and other income the port derives from commercial fishing activities is expected to shrink to about $800,000 for the fiscal year ending this month, down from $1.7 million in 1980. Both declines have been attributed in large part to the closure of the Star-Kist Foods tuna cannery at Fish Harbor last fall.
"This place is a disaster area," said Bill Craig, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who has worked in the Fish Harbor area for more than three decades. "There used to be four or five times as many boats in this area."
A handful of fishermen said they are not bothered by the poor conditions at Fish Harbor. For instance, Tony Hochmuth, 64, who has anchored his 58-foot fishing vessel in the harbor for 30 years, said the area "is just exactly like it was" when he moved in. "This is fine the way it is," he said.
Nevertheless, a number of fishermen said they believe the Harbor Department is either stalling or has no intention of keeping its pledge to improve the piers and provide support facilities.
Moreover, some contend that the department, despite its promises to the contrary, would prefer to use the harbor, as well as the land where the canneries and other buildings now stand, for more lucrative container cargo facilities. The port recently announced that a former can manufacturing plant just outside the area set aside for commercial fishing will be modified for use by the container industry.
"A lot of the fishermen are hoping that Fish Harbor isn't turned into a container terminal," said Ruth Pereira, a port employee who is in charge of collecting wharfage fees from the harbor's tenants. "And I try to reassure them it won't happen for quite a while, if it happens at all."
Planning Director Robinson said the port has no intention of converting the 118 acres devoted to commercial fishing to other uses. Harbor Commission President Fred Heim was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment.
Of more immediate concern to the fisherman is the lack of what they consider adequate structures such as showers, permanent restrooms or storage lockers. "There are just no facilities here for human beings, really, " said Craig of the fisheries service.
Many fishermen said the aging piers, despite the improvements, pose the biggest problem. When the number of boats in the harbor swells, some boat owners are forced to tie up to the piers five or six abreast. Not only do the boats run the risk of crashing into one another during a bad surge, but fishermen are sometimes forced to move all the boats if one comes or goes.
"It's kind of eerie down here when a big storm comes through with all the boats tied up next to one another," said a woman who, along with her husband, has lived aboard a boat at Fish Harbor for the past 10 years. The woman said she did not want her name used.
"I would prefer they make a regular marina for fishermen here," said Dennis Cobbley, a 38-year-old Long Beach fisherman who anchors his boat at Fish Harbor several times a year. "I would be willing to pay more for better facilities. A lot of the people down here would. It's really hard on your boat."
Despite the problems, many fisherman said there is an advantage to anchoring at Fish Harbor--low rent. The Harbor Department charges fishermen on the basis of boat length. At present, the fee is $1 a foot per month, probably the cheapest anywhere in the Los Angeles area and the reason Fish Harbor is called a "poor man's marina."
"This is the only reasonably priced marina in the area," said Cobbley, explaining that he has subleased a space reserved in his name at a Long Beach marina because it is priced more than five times higher than the $47 a month he pays at Fish Harbor.