SAN PEDRO — The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners voted Wednesday to move forward with a plan that port officials predict could provide a boost to the beleaguered fishing industry.
Under the proposal unanimously approved by commissioners, the port will negotiate with two local fishing industry groups for the construction of a $34-million fishermen's wharf near the harbor's main channel. The project would be financed by the private groups and include retail shops and storage and freezing facilities for fish caught by the local fleet.
At the same time, commissioners decided to drop a plan that called for the port to invest millions of dollars to improve commercial fishing operations across the channel at Fish Harbor on Terminal Island. Instead, the Harbor Department will develop that area, which once served as home for more than a dozen thriving fish canneries, for shipping and other uses.
Opportunity to Do Better
"Right now, we are trying to create an environment so the fishing industry can be viable and successful here at the port," Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava said before the vote was taken. "I think the plan will give fishermen an opportunity to do a little better."
The heads of the two fishing groups were optimistic about the project.
"I'm really enthused about the idea," said Stanley DiMeglio, a fish wholesaler and president of the San Pedro Fisheries Institute, a group of 12 fish wholesalers that will participate in the project. But, DiMeglio cautioned, "we are just at the doorstep of negotiations."
According to the plan, the institute and the San Pedro Fishermen's Cooperative Assn., a 60-year-old group of boat owners, will work with port planners to secure a long-term lease for 15 acres near the Ports o' Call shopping center and the Cabrillo Marina now under construction near the port. A handful of commercial tenants now occupy the land.
Nine Commercial Buildings
Once a lease is signed and financing is secured by the groups, construction will begin on nine two-story commercial buildings that will be divided into small retail stalls. Some of the stalls would presumably be used by fishermen to sell their catches directly to the public, port officials said.
Of greater importance to the fishing industry, however, would be the the construction of a freezer warehouse capable of storing 15,000 tons of fish, and a dry storage facility.
Fishermen have complained for years to the Harbor Department that such storage facilities are lacking at the port, forcing them to rent space at privately operated facilities at a price that cuts deep into profits. Frank Iacono, general manager of the fishermen's cooperative, said fishermen now pay 5 to 6 cents a pound to store their catches.
Iacono and other fishing industry representatives also said that in recent years storage space has become difficult to find as local canneries, which traditionally provided storage space, have closed. As a result, fishermen have had to either store fish aboard their vessels or curtail fishing operations altogether until space becomes available, they said.
"We just can't catch it," said Iacono, whose group represents about 270 fishermen. "We can't bring it in. We can sell what we have orders for, but that is it."
"One of our problems . . . is getting the boats out there without worrying where we are going to put the stuff," DiMeglio said, adding that local storage facilities are "jammed to the doors" with fish.
Pete Mandia, the port's deputy planning director, said the proposal for a fishermen's wharf is the outgrowth of a larger plan undertaken by port, fishing industry and community representatives and adopted by commissioners in 1981. Several phases of the plan, which called for renovation of the municipal fish market where wholesalers lease space, as well as nearby street improvements, have already been completed, he said.
"(The port's) thinking now is that we want to maintain all the things that are working," Mandia said. "We are doing everything we can to help this industry survive and expand."
Mandia said the 1981 plan also called for the Harbor Department, which under the Los Angeles City Charter is obligated to promote commercial fishing interests, to invest more than $30 million in Fish Harbor. Under the plan, the port was to have deepened the harbor's channel to accommodate larger fishing vessels, expand wharfs and consolidate cannery operations.
But as the tuna canneries, which have faced stiff foreign competition in recent years, have closed their doors or sharply curtailed operations, the Harbor Department has been reluctant to move forward with the plan, Mandia said. Star-Kist Foods Inc., which closed its large tuna plant on the island in 1983, relinquished about five acres it once leased from the port, and Pan Pacific, the only company that still maintains a large tuna cannery operation on the island, has indicated that it may soon return eight acres to the port.
"Market conditions change, and it's our view, as well as the dominant view of the fishing industry, that it would not be wise to put money" into Fish Harbor, Mandia said. "The plan that was adopted does not really respond to the conditions that exist today or those that will probably exist in the near future."
Mandia said the port will continue to maintain Fish Harbor's docks and other commercial fishing facilities and will work with members of the Tuna Industry Advisory Committee to develop a program aimed at revitalizing the tuna industry.