There was no joy in Robert Durfos' eyes as he unloaded two crates of black cod onto a Channel Islands Harbor dock Thursday--his first good catch in over a month.
"It's going horribly," he said sourly. "I knew that the life of a fisherman is feast or famine, but so far all I've seen is famine."
First came the recession. Then the ban on gill netting. Then a market overflow forced fisheries to impose quotas. And then a Consumer Reports story that undermined the image of fish as a safe source of food.
Now, to top it all off, a streak of bad weather has kept Durfos and his 200 fellow Ventura County commercial fishermen out of work for most of this month.
Durfos said he is so in debt he can barely stay in business. On Thursday, Durfos said, he took his boat out despite the bad weather because he could wait no longer.
"Even if there's a storm, I have to go out. The way things are going, I have no choice," said Durfos, pouring ice over his fish under a light afternoon rain.
This is not what he had envisioned five years ago when he quit his defense industry job and bought his boat, the Crystal Sea, to pursue his dream of making a living at sea.
"Our bank accounts are empty," Durfos said about himself and his colleagues.
"The first thing to go is the cosmetic maintenance. I used to haul the boat every year and paint the bottom. Haven't been able to do that for a couple of years.
"Then the real maintenance. My generator started having problems a couple of months ago, so now we have to go out without electricity. If something happens to my motor, that's it, I'm broke."
Two boat sleeves up the dock, on the deck of the Trigger Fish, Mike Carney was preparing to go sea urchin fishing for the first time in 30 days.
"Can't dive in the bad swells, it's really dangerous," he said. "With all these storms and small craft warnings, we can't even go out. Tried it a couple of weeks ago, but we got to the west coast of Anacapa Island and decided to turn around and head back."
Patrick Freese's squid boat has been stranded in the dock for more than four weeks.
"And it's not just the weather--prices are killing us," Freese complained. In 1987, he was paid $120 for fishing a ton of squid. Five years later, he said, he gets paid the same or less.
"Something's wrong with this picture," he said, tossing away the can of a beer he had just finished. "Everything's gone up except our fish. Somebody's got to do something."
It's been a tough year for the county's fishermen, said Brian Jenison, president of the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen's Assn.
The recent floods have swept so much debris into the ocean that offshore fishermen will be out of work until the waters clear.
The increasing diet of regulations being imposed on commercial fishing is making the industry less and less competitive, while Mexico is making a major push for the U.S. fish market, Jenison said.
Even the ice factory on Ventura Harbor is broke and fishermen are forced to miss entire days trucking in ice from downtown Oxnard, Jenison added.
"But we are survivors," he said, "and we'll survive."