Bill Hoffman, who has been taking people fishing since 1954, remembers the glory years when more than 300 charter boats operated out of this quiet fishing village on the Pacific Coast, and there was plenty of fish for all.
Now there are no more than 30 charter boats running out of Westport, including the five Hoffman operates through his company, Neptune Charters. Soon, he figures, there won’t be any left because the commercial boats capable of scooping up fish by the hundreds in their nets will have left the area waters barren.
Hoffman plans to vote Tuesday in support of Initiative 696, which would ban most commercial nets from Washington waters. He’s backing the measure even though it includes the purse seine nets used to catch the anchovies and sardines that sportfishing guides like him use for bait--potentially damaging his own charter operation.
“If they don’t do away with net fishing, they’re all going to be out of business--sport and commercial,” Hoffman, 73, said in a recent interview from behind the counter of his waterfront gift shop, which also serves as headquarters of his charter fleet. “I’m ready to vote for it, even if it kills me.”
Entire Industry at Risk, Foes Say
But foes say it could kill an entire industry, wiping out hundreds and maybe thousands of jobs, without saving many fish.
Besides the operators and crew of Washington’s dwindling fleet of commercial fishing vessels, others who fear for their futures include those who unload the day’s fish and shrimp catch on the docks, process the seafood for consumption and keep the boats running.
“Nets are my main income. If they can’t shrimp here anymore, then I can’t work here anymore,” said Cathy Peek, a Westport woman who earns a living building and repairing nets, performing underwater maintenance on fishing boats and painting ocean scenes.
The initiative would not stop commercial fishing in Washington, but it would severely curtail it.
In 1998, the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued 3,214 commercial fishing licenses. Of those, 1,477--or 46%--would have been prohibited under I-696, according to a department analysis.
Similar Measure Rejected in ’95
The initiative’s sponsor, sportfishing consultant Tom Nelson of Renton, said the issue is simple: Restore stocks of endangered wild salmon and other fish by eliminating commercial net fishing.
Under I-696, various kinds of commercial fishing gear would be prohibited in state waters, which include Puget Sound and three miles out into the Pacific.
It would not affect tribal fishing guaranteed by treaty rights.
If the issue sounds familiar to some voters, it should. A similar proposal pushed in 1995 by some sportfishermen and their allies was rejected at the polls.
But the political landscape--and waterscape--has changed since then. Uncle Sam is threatening to force state and local governments to take expensive steps to protect endangered wild salmon runs.
“We’re all going to pay a price whether we like it or not,” Nelson said, citing predictions of higher taxes and home prices to cover the cost of salmon-recovery efforts. “We were just looking for the way that’s cheapest for the taxpayers.”
The initiative has been portrayed as a surf war between the sport and commercial fishing industries. But it is not that simple.
Although the commercial industry is united in opposition, charter boat operators and environmentalists are divided.
Some want to eliminate all nets, while others are angry that the initiative also bans nets that catch the fish sportfishermen use for bait. Some sport fishers don’t support banning trollers, which drag fishing lines with hooks--not nets. And some complain that the measure will just free up more fish to be taken by Indian tribes.
Vincent Putze, a charter fisherman in Westport for 14 years, said a better measure should be written that addresses the most damaging nets “without putting a lot of people out of work.”
Interviewed as he slapped fresh paint on his 47-foot fishing boat, the Shenandoah, Putze said the initiative bans nets that do not threaten salmon.
Dennis Moss, captain of the Silver Duchess charter boat, particularly dislikes nets that drag rollers along the ocean floor, sending bottom fish such as Pacific cod and pollock scrambling into nets.
“Those nets are just too doggone efficient. They kill everything,” Moss said as he cleaned his boat in the Westport harbor.
Still, he sides with the Westport Charter Boat Assn., which opposes I-696 on the grounds that it is too broad.
The boards of Seattle’s Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club and the Washington Environmental Council oppose the measure, while area chapters of the Audubon Society support it.
Nelson, the measure’s sponsor, makes no apologies.
“Our issue isn’t about who gets to catch and kill the salmon. It’s about getting the salmon back to the rivers to spawn,” he said.
Foes say Nelson is missing the mark.
Developers, timber companies and farmers present the biggest obstacles to salmon recovery, fisherman Doug Fricke said in an interview aboard his Westport-based troller, the Howard H.
Gill netter Allan Hollingsworth agrees, saying state regulators protect salmon stocks by limiting the fall gill net season to 48 hours spread over several days this month.
“We’re the most restricted fishery in the state,” said Hollingsworth, who has been fishing for 32 years and says he has no other marketable job skills.
No one is sure how I-696 would affect the price and availability of salmon, shrimp and other seafood at Washington markets and restaurants. Nelson said most of the state’s seafood comes from other states, so consumers should not suffer.
Fricke, who supplies ocean-caught salmon to Seattle-area restaurants and markets, said the out-of-state catch would not be as fresh, so consumers could see a decline in quality.
Dennis Rydman, manager of Merino Seafood Company, said the initiative could devastate fishing communities like Westport.
Merino Seafood, which has invested $5 million in its plant and employs 200, processes fish and crab. The firm could be left with only its crab business if the measure is approved, he said.
“If we lose 50% of our business, we don’t have a business,” Rydman said during a break from painting “No 696" signs, a cigarette in one hand and a can of red paint in the other.