Feuding Fishermen Net Only Trouble in Flap Over Dock Rents

Times Staff Writer

In the tight-knit world of the San Pedro fisherman, where fathers work side by side with their sons and some say salt water flows in their veins, a family feud is churning the waters.

On one side are gill net fishermen--relative newcomers to the industry--who use their small boats to catch halibut, swordfish, sharks and other fish that are sold fresh at markets.

On the other side are the ones who fish with purse seines--the traditional backbone of the San Pedro fishing industry--who catch tuna, mackerel, bonito and anchovies. Most are members of the Fishermen's Cooperative Assn., which helps them sell their catch to canneries and acts as landlord of the wharf where the purse seiners and gill netters dock.

The feud, essentially, is about big boats--and their cooperative--that allegedly push the little boats around on the docks.

Unfair Treatment

Gill net fishermen say they are paying too much to dock at the wharf. They say purse seiners move their boats without permission, sometimes damaging them or failing to restore the boats' electric power, which results in spoiled groceries and dead batteries.

And, they allege, the purse seiners are given free rein on the dock to store and mend their nets.

"The purse seiners, they've got the co-op. They've got all the rights," complained gill netter Vito Russo. "They do what they want to do and they just shove us around."

"They don't know that we exist other than our monthly rents," said gill netter Mickey Fiamengo. "That's the attitude around here."

"They're crazy," replied Frank Iacono, general manager of the cooperative. "They are all treated equally here, and they all pay the same rate, and, as a matter of fact, our boats keep the docks clean. The gill netters don't."

Although Iacono denies that boats have been moved without permission, one purse seiner acknowledged that he has moved smaller boats, saying a dearth of dock space makes this necessary.

"Customarily, this is what goes on," said Benny Matera, owner of the purse seiner Pioneer. "Boats have to move boats to get access to the docks."

Mediating this dispute is the Los Angeles Harbor Department. The department owns the wharf and leases it to the cooperative, which in turn manages it and charges the fishermen for dockage and services.

As a result of a laundry list of complaints Fiamengo made in December, the department is now pressing for a series of changes in the way the co-op runs the docks.

The most controversial of these changes is a proposal to cut monthly rent at the wharf in half, from between $4 and $4.25 per foot of boat length to $2.15 per foot.

If those rates go through, "they can have the lease back," declared Iacono. "We cannot run this . . . on what the Harbor Department is telling us to."

While the matter is pending, Fiamengo said, gill netters are staging a rent strike. They are withholding the extra service fees that the cooperative has been charging them.

A lawyer for the cooperative said the dispute should be resolved by June 30, the deadline agreed to by the department. Lawyer Carole Rouin said the cooperative intends to prove that it must charge the higher rates to continue successfully managing the dock.

Mark Richter, the department's assistant director for property management, said the $2.15-per-foot rent he proposed is reasonable, based on figures supplied by the cooperative.

However, he acknowledged that the cooperative is not bound by the proposal and that it is not expected to run the dock at a loss.

While Richter said he does not see a "significant distinction between the way gill netters and purse seiners are accommodated," he did say he wants the cooperative to establish formal, written standards that will apply to all boats.

Plans Required

Further, he instructed the cooperative to draw up a "net storage and net mending site plan" and a berthing plan that will "separate vessels by length to a reasonable extent" so that there will be no confusion about who can dock where.

"The fact is," Richter said, "that they have no consistent policies."

As for the feud between the gill netters and the purse seiners, Richter said he does not quite understand it. He likened them to "squabbling siblings."

The dispute has some boat owners worried.

"Why all the noise?" asked Matera. The gill netters "should be satisfied that they have a safe place to tie up," he said. "If we make too much noise, we're going to end up losing this place."

"This place" is the S. P. Slip (the initials stand for Southern Pacific, not San Pedro) at Berth 73 in the Port of Los Angeles, just south of the Ports O' Call shopping village.

It is home to anywhere from 60 to 100 vessels each day. About 28 are purse seiners, 21 of those being cooperative members, according to Iacono. Fiamengo said about 50 gill netters dock there, although Iacono disputes this figure, saying the number is about 30. Other vessels, some of them visiting, also use the slip.

For boat owners who want to dock at the city port, there are two alternatives to the S. P. Slip: the private marinas, which are far more expensive, and Fish Harbor at Terminal Island, which is managed directly by the Harbor Department. Rates there are less expensive than at the S. P. Slip.

San Pedro boat owners who have been docking at the S. P. Slip all their lives are reluctant to move to Fish Harbor. For one thing, it is farther from home. In case of disaster--like the fire that consumed a portion of the wharf and destroyed two purse seiners in January--fishermen like to be able to get to their boats quickly.

"This is my home," explained Russo, a San Pedro resident who owns the gill netter Mission Belle. "I've lived here for 35 years. Fish Harbor is out of my way."

Furthermore, all seem to agree with Iacono that at Fish Harbor, "it's a worse mess than what we have here." Even Richter, the port official, admits that "quite frankly, the facilities (in S. P. Slip) are better than in Fish Harbor."

Though they all are fishing vessels, the gill netters and purse seiners that share the S. P. Slip are vastly different. A typical gill net boat is 45 feet long and run by a crew of two or three. The gill net fisherman spreads his mile-long net out in the water and lets it drift. Fish swimming into the nets are trapped by their gills--thus the name.

Purse seiners are often 90 or 100 feet long and manned by a crew of as many as 10. The purse seiner uses a winch and cable and pulley system to lower its nets into the water. The nets encircle a school of fish; then a drawstring at the bottom is tightened to create a "purse" that traps the catch.

Many gill netters, like Fiamengo, owned purse seiners at one time. But the industry has changed over the years: Foreign competition and closures of the canneries that buy their catch have contributed to the dwindling purse seiner population--and, according to Fiamengo, an expansion of the gill net fleet, whose catch is sold fresh.

The cooperative has represented the purse seiners for 61 years, acting as a marketing liaison between the fishermen and the canneries. Last year, the nonprofit cooperative purchased the former Star-Kist cannery on Terminal Island, which it now runs under the name United Food Processors.

In his complaint to the Harbor Department, Fiamengo said the gill netters have tried to join the cooperative on several occasions and have been rejected each time. He said gill netters do not want, or need, a vote in business issues that affect purse seiners but would like a say in how the docks are managed.

Iacono said he knows of no attempts by the gill netters to join his group. But, he added: "They have no business in our organization. We can't represent these people. If they want an organization, let them put their own organization together. We're not going to worry about them."

In fact, Fiamengo has started his own organization, the Los Angeles Commercial Fishermen's Assn., which he said is two months old and represents mostly gill netters.

But without membership in the cooperative, Fiamengo said there is no way for gill netters to know whether they are paying the same rates as co-op members. Purse seiner owners interviewed said they did not know how much they are paying for dockage and service charges because the fees are automatically deducted when they sell fish to the co-op.

In his December letter, Fiamengo alleged, among other things, that the cooperative was violating its lease agreement by charging too much for dockage and by allowing non-fishing vessels to take up valuable space in the S. P. Slip.

Richter said the cooperative is in technical violation of the lease provision governing dockage fees. The lease requires the cooperative to abide by a tariff that sets dockage fees for the rest of the port at $3.50 per linear meter or about $1.08 per foot.

The co-op also is allowed to charge a service fee for dock maintenance and other expenses. But on its billing statements, the cooperative lumped the dockage and service fees together, charging between $4 and $4.25 for "dockage."

Richter told the cooperative that it must list the charges separately. He also recommended that the service fee be $1.07 per foot, which would bring the total to $2.15.

Rouin, the cooperative's lawyer, said the co-op needs to charge more to make up for debtors.

"The gill netters come in and they sometimes pay and they sometimes don't," she said. "There's $60,000 in arrearages that have not been paid, and the co-op has to absorb the fees."

Department Action

Fiamengo, however, said it is exactly the opposite. He said purse seiners, not gill netters, owe the co-op money.

Richter also agreed that non-fishing vessels should be removed from the slip and said the Harbor Department will remove them. That is a relief to Iacono: The cooperative stopped removing such vessels after one of the relocated boats sank and its owner sued. The lawsuit is still pending.

Richter hopes the new policies will alleviate some of the tension between the gill netters and the purse seiners.

"It's a very difficult situation," he said, "because these two groups certainly will not talk to each other. . . . There's finite berthing capacity for fishing vessels in the port, and they're going to have to learn to live with each other."

Fishermen like Matera agree.

"All these gill netters are all ex-purse seiners, and if some of the younger guys aren't, their fathers were," he said. "We're all fishermen. We all have to live together."

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