Frank Hale has run a sportfishing business in the Long Beach area for nearly 20 years. Last week, as this year's summer fishing season came to an end, Hale closed his books on the most financially disastrous season he can recall.
Several miles up the coast at King Harbor in Redondo Beach, Terry Turk has operated a fishing barge for eight years. As he tallied final passenger figures for the month of August, Turk registered a 30% drop in customers from last year--the fourth consecutive monthly decline for the barge.
Dozens of sportfishermen like Hale and Turk, at businesses stretching from Long Beach Harbor to Paradise Cove in Malibu, ended the 1985 summer season with frustration, anger, resentment--and severely depleted finances, said Bill Nott, president of the Sportfishing Assn. of California.
Indeed, some local sportfishing businessmen are referring bitterly to 1985 as the year of the white croaker scare--a time when they say state health warnings about contaminated croaker and other fish in Santa Monica and San Pedro bays have driven away customers by the thousands.
"It is going to make a very difficult winter for us," said Gordon McRae Jr., general manager of Redondo Beach Marina, which rents space to Turk and other sportfishing businesses at King Harbor. "Our business is seasonal. It will be harder to get through."
Business at many sportfishing operations--which include fishing barges, charter boat services and bait and tackle shops--and some restaurants dropped drastically in April and May after the state Department of Health Services issued warnings that white croaker, also known as tom cod, caught in and around Santa Monica and San Pedro bays may be dangerously contaminated by toxic materials such as DDT.
The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services posted signs in late April and early May on piers between Santa Monica and Long Beach. The signs, which remain in place, advise fishermen of state warnings not to eat white croaker caught in the two bays or any fish caught near White Point in San Pedro, the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach Harbor and Cabrillo Pier in Los Angeles Harbor.
Nott said business has gradually improved since the initial drop--which he said averaged about 80% in the two bays--but at summer's end, much of the sportfishing industry is still in financial jeopardy, he said. Business is off 20% on the average, he said, and several of the 98 sportfishing businesses in Los Angeles, Orange and Northern San Diego counties--particularly those that rely on one boat for their revenue--may seek financial assistance from the federal government in order to survive the winter.
The contamination warnings seem to have most severely affected operations that offer fishing relatively close to shore. Those businesses, which include barge operations and short-distance charter boats, have felt the pinch because the contamination warnings specifically mention fish found in the bays rather than open ocean.
"This was our worst season," said Turk, president of Redondo Sport Fishing. Turk said business at the barge was off 45% in July, with 2,268 fewer customers than a year earlier. Business at half-day fishing boats that leave from his pier has been down about 25%, he said, with revenue from a typical boat in July at $30,000 compared to $40,000 last year.
"I don't know what lies ahead," Turk said. "If this thing carries through the winter, it could be a disaster. It could put a lot of people out of business."
Hale, who said he has been in the sportfishing business for 40 years, said profits have been cut in half this summer at his two businesses, Belmont Boat Fishing in Long Beach and Seal Beach Pleasure Fishing in Seal Beach. He said gross revenues are off about 40%.
'In a Hole'
"It has put me in a hole that will take me a long time to crawl out of," said Hale, 72. "When things are going like this and suddenly you need a major overhaul or something, then you are in trouble."
Last month, the Redondo Beach City Council agreed to reduce the percentage of gross income the city collects from the boat hoist at Redondo Beach Marina. McRae, general manager of the marina, said the demand for skiff rentals and boat launches has been down since the state issued the health warnings, making an unprofitable aspect of the marina's business even less profitable.
Businesses that offer day trips beyond the bays, in contrast, report that sales have been brisk. At Redondo Sport Fishing, operators of day boats, which take fishermen to waters off Santa Catalina Island, reported a slight increase in sales in July and a 35% jump in August over last summer, Turk said.
Tom Durr, who operates eight boats from Ports o' Call Sportfishing in San Pedro, said passenger loads are off slightly from last year, but he does not attribute the drop to the contamination warnings.