Life at Sea Nearing the Shoals

Times Staff Writer

Aboard his weatherworn fishing boat, Duncan MacLean has pulled a livelihood from the high seas. He takes pride in putting seafood on dinner tables. He loves his workday on the roller-coaster swells.

But that storied way of life is at risk for West Coast fishermen. The culprit is a sick river and its dwindling salmon runs.

Environmental woes on the Klamath River, once among the nation’s mightiest chinook spawning grounds, have prompted federal regulators to move toward an outright ban on salmon fishing this year along 700 miles of Pacific coast.

In ports from Monterey to Astoria, Ore., the grim prospect of losing the industry’s most prized commercial catch -- the filet mignon of fish -- has denizens of the docks predicting economic ruin.


Grizzled fishermen talk of bankruptcy, of losing the only job they have ever known. Worries ripple from the docks to bayside pubs, bait-and-tackle shops, sportfishing charter businesses, motels that fill each summer with recreational fishermen, even grocery stores that boom during salmon season.

Believing they are being unfairly targeted for a problem they didn’t cause, fishermen are vowing to jam hearings Monday and Tuesday in California and the Pacific Northwest on the possible ban. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory body, will make a final recommendation to federal regulators April 7 in Sacramento.

By some estimates, a canceled salmon season could domino into a $150-million hit on local economies that still depend on fishing as a financial cornerstone.

A salmon ban would also turn away countless sport fishermen drawn by the prospect of hooking a chinook. Recreational saltwater fishing contributes $1.7 billion to the California economy, and a year without salmon could cost plenty.


Economists say it is hard to predict how a salmon ban would affect prices on the West Coast, but they don’t expect them to rise much more than a dollar per pound for commercial catch.

“The ripple effects, how far can you say they’ll go?” wondered MacLean, a small, wiry man with work-roughened hands as big as paddles. “Right now, the whole infrastructure for this industry is fragile. This could turn it belly-up.”

Commercial fishing’s travails are the flip side to the disaster suffered by farmers who depend on the Klamath, which flows from Oregon’s Cascade snowmelt to the coast north of Eureka, Calif.

A drought in 2001 prompted federal regulators to slash Klamath River irrigation deliveries to 1,400 farms straddling the California-Oregon border. As summer wore on, angry growers unceremoniously pried open irrigation canal gates.


The Bush administration, which counts agribusiness among its most loyal constituencies, responded in 2002 by approving a Klamath water diversion plan applauded by farmers. Fishermen and environmentalists predicted doom for the Klamath’s declining salmon runs.

Within months, more than 70,000 returning adult chinook succumbed to disease blamed on low river flows. But the bigger threat was to baby fish. With four hydropower dams blocking the Klamath’s natural currents and its flows reduced by irrigation deliveries, biologists say a lethal parasite flourished, triggering a devastating wave of juvenile salmon deaths.

The last two years have seen the number of returning Klamath chinook adults drop far below the 35,000 floor set by federal regulations to maintain healthy stocks. This year looks no better.

Several options are being weighed, including a shortened fishing season like last year’s -- 11 weeks instead of the usual six months -- and a prohibition on any salmon catch from Point Sur near Monterey up to northern Oregon.


“Overall, it is a gloomy future for salmon fishing,” said Brian Gorman of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A quarter-century ago, more than 8,000 fishing vessels plied the waters off California and Oregon. Today, there are fewer than a thousand as catch restrictions and competition from farmed fish imported from Chile, Scotland and Canada squeeze the commercial fleets.

Income from salmon caught off California and Oregon fell from a high of $243 million in 1988 to last year’s $57 million.

Robust commercial fleets in cities such as Crescent City and Fort Bragg are now shadows from the past.


“In some ways the cultural aspect is now much more a significant factor than any economic loss,” said Steve Hackett, a Humboldt State University economist. “They want to hold on to what’s left of their commercial fleet because it’s part of their identity and part of their past.”

At Pillar Point Harbor, north of Half Moon Bay, dejection abounds.

Most years, the harbor would be buzzing with spring cleaning in anticipation of the traditional May 1 opening of salmon season.

These days it’s mostly quiet.


“You don’t see the enthusiasm,” said MacLean, sitting on the aft deck of the 41-foot Barbara Faye as gulls flew overhead and a few solitary tourists wandered by.

Fishermen here are forlorn, he said, in what should be the best of times. The salmon runs on the Sacramento River are robust, thanks to several decades of preservation efforts. But those fish mingle in the ocean with the Klamath’s depleted stocks. Mac Lean might catch one Klamath fish for every 100 from the Sacramento River, but that’s enough to prompt a proposed ban.

Wild salmon could be off-limits just when the market is hottest. Recent years have seen a rising demand and higher prices for line-caught fish, deemed both tastier and healthier than farm-raised fish.

Salmon fishermen like Mac Lean bring home that catch the old-fashioned way: slowly trolling with hook and line.


“It’s my 7-mile-per-hour world,” he said. “And on a rough day, I get for free what people pay good money for at an amusement park -- the ride of your life.”

Harbors like Pillar Point, an oval of flat water separated from the Pacific by a boulder breakwater 20 miles south of San Francisco, have survived by becoming boutique markets for tourists, with some fishermen selling to the public off the back of their boats.

If there is no salmon to market, the tourists who buy fresh fish will disappear, MacLean said. “It’ll hit the gas stations, the restaurants, the bars, the little gift shops.”

Like others in his ocean-going fraternity, MacLean worries not just for the commercial fleet but also for the dockside businesses that pack and ship fish to market, fuel his boat and pump its hold full of ice to keep the catch fresh.


Pillar Point has three small seafood distributors, and Mac Lean figures at least one will vanish along with the season.

David Mallory, owner of Morning Star Fisheries, isn’t about to concede defeat. After two decades in the business, he expects to fill any void with other fish, black cod perhaps. Wild salmon can be shipped from Alaska to keep customers happy. His four employees might see their hours cut back, but he’ll hustle to keep customers on board, some from as far away as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Boston.

“I’m pretty industrious,” he said, standing beside saltwater tanks filled with Dungeness crab. “We’ll tighten up the ship and take it one season at a time.”

On the other side of the pier, business is slow at Keet Nerhan’s commercial fuel and ice dock.


Nerhan has $1 million invested in his automated ice plant and diesel fuel pump. For the last three years, he has operated in the red. With a salmon ban, business could fall another 40%, he said. “It’s going to be rough.”

Near the foot of the pier, Peggy Beckett and her husband, Bill, say a lost salmon season would dry up 85% of the business at their bait-and-tackle shop, Huck Finn Sportfishing. “I can’t survive selling a sweatshirt or a T-shirt to an empty parking lot,” she said. Longtime friend Roger Thomas leaned on a glass display case and shook his head. Thomas, 71, is juggling hats these days. He owns and captains the 56-foot Salty Lady, a recreational charter boat moored farther north in Sausalito. He’s also president of the Golden Gate Fishermen’s Assn. and an appointed member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Tuesday night in Santa Rosa, Thomas will act as chairman at a salmon-ban hearing that he expects will be packed with both commercial and recreational fishermen.

He welcomes the crowd -- and hopes that at a minimum, federal regulators will permit a shortened season or provide disaster relief. If not, he said, “you’re going to see a lot of people go out of business.”


A couple of doors down, the pre-happy hour crowd at the Harbor Bar lamented their fate over Budweisers and highballs.

“We are the endangered species,” Gary Christensen, a longtime deckhand, said from his bar stool. “I’m looking at unemployment. And the public is looking at eating farm fish. Real salmon don’t eat rabbit pellets and red dye No. 4.”

MacLean doesn’t like the look of his future aboard the Barbara Faye. He is 56 now and has been fishing for more than three decades.

He can fix anything on the old boat, but can’t imagine what marketable skills he has outside his 7-mile-per-hour world.


“This could force me to liquidate and move,” he said. “This could force a new lifestyle on me. This is the only thing I’ve ever done.”

The feeling doesn’t sit well, the prospect of seeing this life at sea unravel like a trawl net snagged on a jetty.