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For salmon fishing port, the future is as murky as its waters

Just yards from the murky waters of Noyo Harbor, the boats sit tilted sideways on scraggly grass, their hulls rusted, their white paint peeling.

Bruce Abernathy has collected them for years on the cheap, hoping to make a killing selling the fishing rights that go with them when the salmon return and Noyo Harbor regains its rightful berth as one of the biggest salmon fishing ports in California.

Instead, his dilapidated fleet has only grown bigger, as frustrated fishermen walk away from their boats. Because of low fish counts, commercial salmon fishing has been prohibited off the California coast for the last two years.

The annual catch, valued at an average of $30 million a year in the 1980s, was worth just $8 million in 2007, the last year salmon fishing was allowed off the coast.

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Locals fear that if authorities continue the ban next year, more vessels will be headed to Abernathy’s boat graveyard, known here as Death Row.

Although hope persists among some that fishing will come back, others are starting to contemplate how to make a living without it in this rugged and isolated part of the state.

There’s talk of boosting the tourist trade by promoting the local redwoods and Mendocino County’s yearly crab and wine festival. Others think salvation may lie in attracting facilities that turn natural resources into energy. Meanwhile, fishermen are trying to imagine a life off the water, wondering if that’s any kind of a life at all.

For Paul Ardzrooni, life after fishing means long days of walking among grape vines and negotiating with investors far from the sea. These days, he runs a vineyard management company in nearby Anderson Valley.

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In 2005, he sold the Tarantino, a 50-foot fishing boat he had dreamed of owning since he was a child, and traded in a life on the water for a more stable job in the hills.

“My sense was that it was going to be a long time, if ever, that we’d be able to fish off the Mendocino coast,” said Ardzrooni, 48. “I made the decision to get out of the business and put all my efforts into farming.”

The politics of fishing in California prompted him to get out, Ardzrooni says: too many restrictions about who could fish where and when. But he still misses the shipboard camaraderie. His son had dreamed of becoming a commercial fisherman; now he’s thinking about a career in renewable energy.

Anderson Valley, rich with pinot grapes growing along the winding road leading northwest to Mendocino, is set on attracting tourists. Mendocino County vintners and growers, which banded together in 2006 into a marketing group, have boosted grape plantings 27% since 2000.

In July, Mendocino County created Visit Mendocino, a travel and tourism organization designed partly to “pick up for some of the decline in fishing,” said Scott Schneider, the group’s president.

But for the fishermen -- and they are almost all men -- nothing can replace being on the water, feeling as if you’re the only person in the world. Some aren’t ready to give up yet, hoping the ban might be at least partially lifted. Many will spend the winter working on their boats, checking for new salmon counts in California’s rivers, trying to ignore the boat graveyard a few hundred feet away.

“I’m sticking with it. I’ll be the last one standing,” said Bill Forkner, 55, a second-generation salmon fisherman.

He sees the effects of the declining fish population every time he walks down the dock to his boat, Shirley. The skipper of the boat in the next slip hasn’t fished in four years, Forkner said, pointing to its deck littered with knotted rope, overturned buckets and debris.

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Another ship is nearly rotted through: “They’re going to haul it away next week,” he said, touching it gingerly.

Forkner can remember the days in the 1960s when boats overflowed the marina, tied up along the Noyo River leading to the ocean. During the peak summer fishing season, he said, it was possible to cross the river just by hopping from deck to deck.

Then, the cold Pacific waters were crowded with factory fishing boats from Korea, Japan and Taiwan trawling for Pacific whiting, recalled Jimmy Smith, a Humboldt County supervisor who was a commercial fisherman until 2001. A fishing boat passing one of the foreign behemoths would shudder in the wake.

Federal buyouts of fishing vessels and further restrictions surrounding salmon fishing have continued to shrink the industry in the last decade. Now, there’s so little to do that Forkner pays his crew members to do work around his house so they’ll be there whenever the ban on fishing is lifted.

That could be a while. While some report favorable signs of salmon this year, others believe the Pacific Fishery Management Council is unlikely to end the ban out of fears the salmon population remains too fragile -- leaving a big economic void.

“Tourism can’t replace the hard-core income that comes from the fishermen,” said Christopher Matson, a red-haired fisherman who blames state regulators for the salmon fishing ban that has made it tougher to support his two children, ages 11 and 12.

Still, Mendocino County officials are determined to try.

They are talking up the isolated county as a tourist’s dream, encouraging visitors to stay longer and attend the World’s Largest Salmon Barbecue, Mendocino’s Crab and Wine Days, and the Mendocino Film Festival.

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They’re looking into producing renewable energy and trying to extend broadband throughout the county so small businesses can move to sparsely populated regions. And they’re encouraging organic cheese, herb and beef companies to expand operations there.

“Looking at the county in totality, we need to talk about diversification,” said Kendall Smith, a Mendocino County supervisor.

Not that it will happen quickly.

In July, Don Bremm opened a wine-tasting room in Humboldt County, Mendocino’s neighbor to the north. Bremm, who also works for a fishery and an environmental consulting firm, started making wine in 2001. But he had to wait four years for the California Coastal Commission and an archaeological firm to approve permits before he could build his winery. He hopes the wine-tasting room in Trinidad, north of Eureka, will attract tourists visiting the nearby redwoods.

Sightseers might not find it easy to get deep into either county. Roads wind dizzyingly around giant trees and along the jagged coastline. And visitors coming from San Francisco, 170 twisty miles to the south, are more likely to stop at the famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions rather than continuing to the coast, said Rich Schaefers, chairman of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission.

“It’s harder to get here; there aren’t as many places to stay; we don’t have as many fancy restaurants,” he said.

For many fishermen, whose earliest memories are of being on the water with their fathers and grandfathers, the idea of working in the fields or serving hamburgers to tourists isn’t appealing.

“We don’t know what else to do; that’s all we’ve done our whole lives,” said Steve Bradley, a bearded, third-generation fisherman in Fort Bragg.

Ben Platt, 47, wants to finish his career in fishing rather than in an unfamiliar industry. “Even if I wanted to do something other than fishing, there aren’t other opportunities right now,” he said.

Because of the salmon restrictions, some fishermen have started crabbing and fishing for black cod. But there’s danger in taking small salmon boats to the deep seas.

Sonny Maahs, 82, blames his son Michael’s death in 2001 on salmon restrictions that forced the father-son team out into high seas to search for crab. The swells reached 12 feet, battering the boat, and Michael was swept overboard and drowned.

“It makes me sick thinking about it,” Maahs said. “Right now, I think they want to get rid of commercial fishermen entirely.”

Some, such as Platt, are sailing into new seas. This year, he paid $35,000 for a salmon permit in Alaska, where fishing regulations are less stringent. He spent his nights alone on his boat, reading books about Captain Cook and listening to news and music on his satellite radio.

Such gambits carry more risk. A few of Platt’s fellow fishermen ran into rocks on their way north and wasted valuable time getting boats repaired in Canadian ports. And with the new equipment he’s had to buy, Platt just hopes to break even this year.

“It’s not a very good replacement for California fishing,” he said.

But for many fishermen, spending long days on rough seas might be the only way to continue doing the job they love and keep their boats out of Abernathy’s Death Row.

Abernathy, who was a commercial fisherman for 50 years, now jokes that men can make a living in fishing only if they have two wives -- both with good jobs.

On a recent evening, he climbed down from a rusty crane he uses to move boats around his yard, looking out over the landscape of dilapidated vessels, shaking his head.

“I used to lease the boats,” he said, glancing quickly at the pampas grass spouting up from his junkyard and the water beyond. “Now I can’t even give them away.”

alana.semuels@latimes.com


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