SAN FRANCISCO — Tourists swoop to Fisherman's Wharf like scavenging sea gulls, but the city's main attraction could become just another shopping mall unless rotting piers and poor berthing conditions are remedied.
In short, Fisherman's Wharf could lose its fishermen.
"Right now, it's a terribly run-down situation," said Louis Ferrari, president of the Crab Boat Owners Assn. "It can't get much worse. It's either stay here and put up with it or go elsewhere."
San Francisco Port Commission officials say conditions should improve next year as a breakwater is completed and plans advance for expanding and modernizing the Hyde Street Pier.
The fishermen aren't eager to leave San Francisco but they are skeptical of the improvement plans.
'A Political Thing'
"They say they want to do everything they can for the fishermen because the fishermen are important to Fisherman's Wharf," said salmon fisherman Bob Miller. "But it often becomes a political thing and fishermen don't seem to have a lot of clout."
The wharf area once was dominated by the fishing industry and factories. Restaurants followed to take advantage of the fresh seafood. Eventually, glitz and neon took over.
Nowadays, the decimated fishing fleet is confined to a few piers wedged among two-story seafood restaurants, souvenir stores, hot dog stands, pizzerias, a wax museum and video arcades.
In every direction are centers of dining and commerce, some tourist attractions in their own rights--Ghirardelli Square, The Cannery, Pier 39, The Anchorage.
Tourists Replace Fishermen
"There's so many tourists down here that they're all stepping on each other's toes," said Jim Phelan, a 71-year-old charter boat captain who has worked here for more than 40 years. "The fishermen originally were the people who mattered at the wharf. Now, it's just tourists, that's all."
Some visitors are disappointed to find only a few boats unloading catches, their masts swaying like metronomes to the rhythm of the waves.
"I came down here because I knew there are fishermen here and because I like the ocean," said Abe Gershonowicz of West Bloomfield, Mich., watching gulls wheel over the boat lagoon. "I didn't realize how commercial it is."
80 Fishing Boats Left
The Port Commission said about 80 fishing boats, including commercial fishermen and charter boats for sportfishing, have berthing permits at the wharf. Most fishermen there are small operators who own their own boats and whose livelihood depends on the quantity and quality of their catches.
Waterfront businessmen worry that tourists may drift away as the fishing fleet dwindles.
"The main thing, of course, is image," said Christopher Martin, president of the Fisherman's Wharf Merchants Assn. "Though we have a lot of attractions at Fisherman's Wharf . . . the thing we lack is one cohesive image and that's what was started with fishing."
Two Groups to Join
Martin's group voted in November to join fishermen lobbying for better facilities.
"It's as backward as any port in Alaska," Martin said. "Basically, all that's here is a pier."
Unlike modern concrete piers in other nearby harbors, the ones at Fisherman's Wharf are of deteriorating wood. Rickety metal ladders dangle from the docks to reach the boats below.
Commercial fisherman W. H. Warren also complained about a lack of parking space, a shortage of electrical and water connections, inadequate berthing facilities and poor lighting and security.
Warren said his boat once was stolen by a drunk who rammed it into other boats and a dock. Miller said he has found bums sleeping aboard his boat.
Surge Called Danger
However, both said a bigger danger is the surge caused by currents entering the lagoon, particularly at this time of year when ocean swells are bigger. The fishermen said the surge bounces the boats around, sometimes snarling outriggers and tearing off rails as the vessels bump pilings and each other.
Federally funded construction began in November on a breakwater to control the surge. That's the first step toward improving the fishermen's part of the wharf, said Ron Stone, director of maritime affairs for the Port Commission.
The next step, he said, will be taken within a couple of months as bids are sought from developers to build a hotel and convention complex on Pier 45, which forms one border of Fisherman's Wharf. The developer will be required to expand and modernize the Hyde Street Pier as part of the package, Stone said.
More Hotels Resisted
Merchants, however, are resisting any more hotels in the area and fishermen complain that the plan caters more to tourist businesses than to their needs.
Stone said improvements in lighting and security around the wharf are being discussed by port officials and boat owners, but money is short.
Several months ago, the rental system for the fishing boat berths was changed, raising rents for some fishermen and creating more ill will.
"The biggest complaint is a rate hike without giving us something in return," said Warren.
"We don't want to move and we don't want to spend a lot of money on a berth," Miller added. "We don't need fancy facilities, but we do need safe facilities."