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Idled Salmon Fishermen Fear for Their Futures

Times Staff Writer

A landlubber Rick Sullivan wasn’t meant to be. Quitting school at 15, he hired on aboard a commercial tuna boat out of this foggy little fishing port, launching a quarter-century career on the ocean.

Like a buoy on the swells of Monterey Bay, this fisherman’s life has bobbed ever since. Sullivan has seen big-catch days of albacore, rockfish and salmon, but also survived trips on feeble boats and tangled with crewmates surly after weeks at sea.

Through good days and bad, there has always been the lure of fish to be caught -- until this summer of discontent.

Instead of heading to sea in what is normally high season for the Pacific’s runs of chinook salmon, the 40-year-old fisherman spends a morning in a living-room recliner -- wife off to her job, cocker spaniel Oreo by his side -- glued to C-SPAN, listening to the discordant sounds of Congress.

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His government has essentially laid him off, Sullivan says.

Worried by dwindling salmon runs on the troubled Klamath River, federal fishing regulators have slashed this year’s season for chinook -- a prime cash crop for the West Coast commercial fleet -- to a few odd weeks scattered across the normal six-month season.

June and most of July, historically among the best months for catching salmon, are shut down for Sullivan and his like along a 700-mile swath of Northern California and Oregon. When the season resumes toward month’s end, they’ll face a stiff quota of 75 fish a week, fewer than a competent commercial salmon troller can hook on a good morning.

With those limits, Sullivan and other fishermen expect to catch just 10% of the salmon they might in a successful season.

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That’s hardly enough to finance a trip to the fuel dock, barely enough to buy tackle, and not nearly enough to pay the harbor slip fee and buy insurance and permits and cover a boat loan, home mortgage, child support and gas for the truck. Folks are gloomy on the docks. Tensions are rising back home.

The other day, Sullivan watched the House of Representatives wage a daylong procedural tug-of-war over federal disaster assistance to keep the imperiled West Coast salmon fleet afloat.

So far, the best Congress has to offer is the prospect of $10 million, a fraction of the $81 million sought by California and Oregon lawmakers. The Bush administration, blamed by fishermen for causing the Klamath’s salmon problems by diverting too much water to farmers during drought years, only recently began edging toward a full-blown bailout.

“All my buddies and I are sitting around doing nothing right now when we should be fishing,” Sullivan lamented.

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What cuts deep is an uneasy feeling that goes beyond the immediate peril.

Up and down A-Dock -- port of call to the Moss Landing fleet -- commercial fishermen such as Sullivan worry about the future of their industry: the motley collection of boats and the distribution network of packers, fish markets and restaurants.

Fishing was one of the pioneer industries of the West. But like the miners, loggers and vaqueros who came and went before them, commercial fishermen face a vanishing way of life.

Like a dirge, Sullivan can click off the decline of both crewmates and the catch. Rockfish are mostly off-limits and halibut are hard to find. Bottom trawlers are being bought off to ease damage to the ocean floor. Nearly all the tuna canneries have moved overseas. Dungeness crab has as many bad years as good.

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Now the chinook -- a legendary migratory fish of the West, the prized king salmon of the marketplace -- has been put nearly off-limits.

Young guys used to get into the game as Sullivan did: working as a crewman and saving to buy a brine-crusted vessel.

No more. Recent years have seen boats head off to the bone yard. One old rig Sullivan leased is now a dilapidated backdrop for a fish restaurant. “I still wouldn’t want to be on it in the parking lot,” Sullivan jokes unsympathetically.

When he began fishing in the early 1980s, California had nearly 8,000 commercial vessels and 11,000 crewmen fishing for salmon. This year, the state issued licenses to 1,357 salmon boats and 1,432 fishermen.

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That attrition has left Sullivan, at 40, one of the youngest commercial fishermen at Moss Landing.

“I’m the next generation of old fisherman,” he said. “After me, there’s no one else.”

Surfing first drew Sullivan to the sea. When he hit Aptos High School, just up the scenic bend of Monterey Bay, he found himself enjoying the waves more than books.

Sullivan quit school and lived for months on the beach, holing up for a while in a tree fort, surfing away the days.

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Hearing about the quick cash earned on fishing boats, he pounded the docks to find work on a tuna boat heading out to the international date line.

Sullivan was quickly making 20 times what a typical 1980s teenager earned in a summer. He banked $25,000 after the fishing season, rented an apartment and surfed through the winter.

Befriended by fishermen twice his age, he grew to become everyone’s crewman. He would land after fishing with buddy Dempsey Bosworth and go right back out with another captain to pull crab pots.

By 30, he was married and had a child -- born while Sullivan was at sea. The brief marriage ended after his bride delivered an ultimatum: the fish or us. Sullivan returned from a summer chasing tuna across the Pacific to find himself divorced.

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But he was happy on a boat deck. If he wasn’t crewing for an older captain, he would lease a death-trap boat and man the bilge pump while bringing in the catch.

At the start of this decade, he remarried and bought the Gardenia, a petite 35-foot wooden fishing troller.

Now, with no money coming in, Sullivan makes sure that the house is clean and dinner is in the oven by the time his wife, Sarah, gets home from work.

She worries about her husband and his calling. “How can it not put a strain on a relationship?” she said. “They’ve stripped my husband of his job. He’s agitated, anxious, wondering what’s happened to his profession.”

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Sullivan still hits A-Dock most days, parking his pickup in the harbor lot across California Highway 1 from the Moss Landing power plant’s twin smokestacks poking into the fog.

Wearing sunglasses and a golf visor despite the morning overcast, he marches down a gangway angled steeply because of low tide. There is always some chore to be done on the Gardenia, and camaraderie to be shared with his fellow captains.

Donny Lusk, 74 and still fishing, waves hello. “A tough old bird,” Sullivan describes him. Travis Evans has hit his mid-80s. Tom McCray, 62, figures he won’t retire for a dozen years. Bosworth is 54, but drolly vows to fish until he drops.

“There’s no retirement in fishing,” said Sullivan, a Marlboro dangling beneath a thick mustache. “There’s fishing until you’re dead. Forty-year-olds are the young ones in the fleet now.”

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Tom Hart, known as “The Rooster” for his crowing predawn wake-up calls to the fleet, waddles up in rubber boots. With salmon off-limits for now, he is gearing up for several weeks of albacore fishing.

Hart’s boat, the 45-foot Charlie Noble, can handle the big seas where albacore lurk. Not all are so well steeled to battle the mid-Pacific. He and Sullivan worry that desperate salmon fishermen, driven by economic need, will take that risk in frail, poorly maintained boats.

“Guys who have no business being out there 1,500 miles on the tuna grounds are going to be in trouble,” Sullivan predicted.

The underlying tragedy, Sullivan and Hart agree, is how good this year could have been. The Klamath River may be ailing, but the Sacramento River is healthy and pouring chinook into the sea. Recreational anglers, who avoided strict cutbacks this year, “are slaughtering them north of San Francisco,” Hart reported.

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In 2004, the best recent year, California fishermen pulled in 6.2 million pounds of chinook, fetching $17.7 million at the dock. A seasoned person might land more than 2,000 salmon in a healthy year and net $60,000 or so.

Sullivan and his brethren weren’t expecting such results when they first headed to sea May 1, just economic survival. But the fish stayed on the wrong side of the demarcation line drawn by U.S. fishery regulators at Pigeon Point, halfway up the coast toward San Francisco.

Commercial fishermen, forced to stay south of the line, caught a measly 9,883 chinook -- just 8% of the historic average for May. Consumers also took a hit, with prices for fresh salmon doubling at the dock.

The problem, Sullivan said, “is a sick river 500 miles away.”

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Fishermen blame the Klamath’s salmon slump on hydroelectric dams that block the river and Bush administration water diversions to agriculture during recent drought years. The river’s flow shrank and warmed, inducing an epidemic of gill rot and parasites.

In the ocean, the Klamath’s reduced salmon runs mingle with Sacramento River fish, indistinguishable on the hook. Sullivan and other Moss Landing fishermen doubt that many Klamath fish ever see their stretch of the coast. But they’re penalized nonetheless.

Survival has come at a price.

Steve Fosmark, in his fourth decade fishing, is selling his retirement house to make it through this rough spot.

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Bosworth has a construction union card, but figures by the time he got a job it would be time to fish again. “I’m doing all right,” he said. “I’m only $17,000 in debt.”

Others have sunk. Terry Irby fell behind on his slip fees and, unable to scramble back, simply walked away from his boat, the Vera, now destined for auction.

He’s working in construction, but still visits the harbor.

Standing on a finger of dock by Sullivan’s boat, Irby shakes his head. “I’ve been fishing 25 years,” he said. “They’ve just regulated us out of business.”

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Back home in his easy chair, with Congress on C-SPAN, Sullivan is thinking about finances.

The federal government is offering low-interest loans to endangered fishermen, but Sullivan doesn’t see the value. “We can’t pay it back if we can’t fish,” he said.

During this summer’s doldrums, his wife’s paycheck is barely keeping the bill collector away. After rent, utilities and grocery bills, there’s $100 left in the couple’s checking account.

Sullivan now fears running aground on child support, a monthly $625 payment. And he can’t afford to fly his 10-year-old daughter out from Connecticut for a summer visit.

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Beyond this awful salmon season, the future seems bleak. “I’ll never be able to afford a house,” Sullivan lamented. “And I’m unemployable.”

Fishing has taught him how to maintain an old boat -- engines, hydraulics, working with steel and wood. “I’m a jack of all trades,” he said, “but it’s not worth much on shore.”

He’s used to being his own captain, and doubts that he could work for someone else without wanting to bark back.

But he said, firing up another cigarette, “Someday soon I may not have a choice in the matter.”

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