In the tight-knit world of the San Pedro fisherman, where fathers work side by side with their sons and some say salt water flows in their veins, a family feud is churning the waters.
On one side are gill net fishermen--relative newcomers to the industry--who use their small boats to catch halibut, swordfish, sharks and other fish that are sold fresh at markets.
On the other side are the ones who fish with purse seines--the traditional backbone of the San Pedro fishing industry--who catch tuna, mackerel, bonito and anchovies. Most are members of the Fishermen's Cooperative Assn., which helps them sell their catch to canneries and acts as landlord of the wharf where the purse seiners and gill netters dock.
The feud, essentially, is about big boats--and their cooperative--that allegedly push the little boats around on the docks.
Gill net fishermen say they are paying too much to dock at the wharf. They say purse seiners move their boats without permission, sometimes damaging them or failing to restore the boats' electric power, which results in spoiled groceries and dead batteries.
And, they allege, the purse seiners are given free rein on the dock to store and mend their nets.
"The purse seiners, they've got the co-op. They've got all the rights," complained gill netter Vito Russo. "They do what they want to do and they just shove us around."
"They don't know that we exist other than our monthly rents," said gill netter Mickey Fiamengo. "That's the attitude around here."
"They're crazy," replied Frank Iacono, general manager of the cooperative. "They are all treated equally here, and they all pay the same rate, and, as a matter of fact, our boats keep the docks clean. The gill netters don't."
Although Iacono denies that boats have been moved without permission, one purse seiner acknowledged that he has moved smaller boats, saying a dearth of dock space makes this necessary.
"Customarily, this is what goes on," said Benny Matera, owner of the purse seiner Pioneer. "Boats have to move boats to get access to the docks."
Mediating this dispute is the Los Angeles Harbor Department. The department owns the wharf and leases it to the cooperative, which in turn manages it and charges the fishermen for dockage and services.
As a result of a laundry list of complaints Fiamengo made in December, the department is now pressing for a series of changes in the way the co-op runs the docks.
The most controversial of these changes is a proposal to cut monthly rent at the wharf in half, from between $4 and $4.25 per foot of boat length to $2.15 per foot.
If those rates go through, "they can have the lease back," declared Iacono. "We cannot run this . . . on what the Harbor Department is telling us to."
While the matter is pending, Fiamengo said, gill netters are staging a rent strike. They are withholding the extra service fees that the cooperative has been charging them.
A lawyer for the cooperative said the dispute should be resolved by June 30, the deadline agreed to by the department. Lawyer Carole Rouin said the cooperative intends to prove that it must charge the higher rates to continue successfully managing the dock.
Mark Richter, the department's assistant director for property management, said the $2.15-per-foot rent he proposed is reasonable, based on figures supplied by the cooperative.
However, he acknowledged that the cooperative is not bound by the proposal and that it is not expected to run the dock at a loss.
While Richter said he does not see a "significant distinction between the way gill netters and purse seiners are accommodated," he did say he wants the cooperative to establish formal, written standards that will apply to all boats.
Further, he instructed the cooperative to draw up a "net storage and net mending site plan" and a berthing plan that will "separate vessels by length to a reasonable extent" so that there will be no confusion about who can dock where.
"The fact is," Richter said, "that they have no consistent policies."
As for the feud between the gill netters and the purse seiners, Richter said he does not quite understand it. He likened them to "squabbling siblings."
The dispute has some boat owners worried.
"Why all the noise?" asked Matera. The gill netters "should be satisfied that they have a safe place to tie up," he said. "If we make too much noise, we're going to end up losing this place."
"This place" is the S. P. Slip (the initials stand for Southern Pacific, not San Pedro) at Berth 73 in the Port of Los Angeles, just south of the Ports O' Call shopping village.
It is home to anywhere from 60 to 100 vessels each day. About 28 are purse seiners, 21 of those being cooperative members, according to Iacono. Fiamengo said about 50 gill netters dock there, although Iacono disputes this figure, saying the number is about 30. Other vessels, some of them visiting, also use the slip.