LONG BEACH — Anyone who spends any time at Belmont Pier is likely to remark on the peace and quiet found there.
"It kind of reminds me of a walk I took through the redwood forest," said Ray Jones, a free-lance engineer who has fished "on and off" at the pier for more than 20 years.
The forest, he remembered, was so silent that he found himself whispering to his companions to avoid disturbing it. "The pier is a pleasant place," Jones said, staring quietly at his line hanging over the railing on a recent sunny day.
Lately, though, the silence has been increasing.
After decades as a colorful Long Beach landmark that on a good day attracted as many as 500 anglers, the pier experienced a 40% decline in business in 1985, marking what manager Frank Hale describes as its worst season in memory.
'It's Dead as Hell'
"It's dead as hell," said Hale, 72, who has managed the city-owned facility since 1979.
Though anglers fish off the pier for free, Hale makes money with a snack bar, tackle shop and bait shop at the end of the pier, in addition to a charter boat service for those intent on deeper waters. In exchange for maintenance and sanitation, he gives the city a portion of his gross annual income, which until this fiscal year has averaged about $1 million.
Now, though, business is way down. "It's real bad," said June Ithulrralde, who handles advertising and promotions for the pier. "We just aren't getting as many people."
Hale attributes the slowdown primarily to warnings issued last April and May by the state Department of Health Services that unsafe levels of toxins such as DDT and PCB had been found in white croaker fish--also known as tom cod--caught in and around Santa Monica and San Pedro bays.
Belmont Pier, near the foot of Grand Avenue at Ocean Boulevard, is considered within the affected area. As a result of the warnings, Hale said, fishermen are too frightened to indulge in their favorite pastime.
Contamination Danger Expressed
(Gerald Pollock, a staff toxicologist with the state Department of Health Services, said last spring's health advisories will be in effect until two new surveys--one conducted by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and another by his own department--can be completed and results assessed. "We still feel there is a danger of contamination," Pollock said, adding that it could take as long as two years to complete the studies but then, "I think we'll have an accurate picture.")
Fishermen who continue frequenting the pier despite the warnings suggest several other factors that may be having a detrimental effect on participation in their sport.
For one thing, they say, the pier--which traditionally remained open 24 hours a day--was closed to overnight fishing a few years ago due to the proliferation of vagrants who took advantage of the situation by sleeping on or under the facility. As a result, say the fishermen, those who wish to fish after 10:30 p.m. now go elsewhere.
Others complain that the fishing off Belmont Pier simply isn't as good as it used to be.
And in a development reflective of both a changing economy and the evolving ethnic face of Long Beach, some sportfishermen say that they and their comrades are gradually being replaced on the pier by the increasing number of families--many of them Asian and Hispanic--who fish not for sport, but for food. By using special bait designed to attract large numbers of smaller fish that are easier to catch, these fishermen say, the low-income families tend to dominate the pier by chasing off the bigger game fish, like bass and halibut, for which the sportfishermen come.
"They use bait--such as mussel--which makes it harder for the (big fish) to come around," said Bill Sills, a 30-year-old Long Beach carpenter who has been fishing off the pier since he was 12.
Because these "survival" fishermen generally dig or catch their own bait, bring their own meals and seldom rent charters, the sportsmen say, their presence is not likely to be reflected in the earnings of the pier's concessions.
'I Like It Here'
Daniel Santana, 31, who has been bringing his wife and 11-year-old daughter to the pier two to three days a week ever since being laid off from his job as a machine operator a month ago, is a case in point. "I like it here because other places are too far (away) and they don't have that many fish," Santana said in Spanish as his daughter, Maria, interpreted. "It's fun and it's good food."
Some of the old regulars, of course, still turn up. On a recent weekday morning, between 20 and 30 of them milled about the steel-and-concrete structure dangling hooks over the side and swapping tales of the big ones that got away.
"It keeps me healthy," said Suzy Lee, 56, of her passion for fishing, which she indulges nearly every day with what she believes to be better-than-average success. "It's cheaper than going to Jack LaLanne's."
"I just come down here to get in the sunshine," said Peter Murphy, a retired oil worker who averages four days a week at the pier."
Jack Brick, harbor master for the city Marine Bureau, which oversees the pier, said he is concerned about the facility's lagging business. "It's in the city's best interest to see that the people who run its functions do well," said Brick, adding that he had no immediate plans for dealing with the problem.
'It's Peaceful Out Here'
On a warm day down at the pier, however, concern among those engaging in their ancient calling seemed about as substantial as the diamond-like flicker of sunlight on the ever-changing surface of the ocean.
"It's peaceful out here," sighed Jones, gazing lazily over the endless water punctuated only by his own hook. The dearth of other fishermen, he said, didn't bother him in the least. "I come down here for a little sea and a little solitude."