Ventura County officials have agreed to review guidelines governing commercial fishing vessels at Channel Islands Harbor in the wake of charges of discrimination by angry fishermen.
The fishermen claim that harbor officials arbitrarily impose rules that prevent them from renting boat slips at the harbor, home to only 13 commercial fishing boats and about 2,600 pleasure craft.
They object strongly to a provision that says that to qualify for a commercial slip at the county-run harbor, they must spend 100 days a year fishing and earn 50% of their income from that activity.
"You might be broken down and have to dry-dock for 10 days. Or you might be out there for 4 or 5 days and not catch much," said Victoria Reed, a commercial fisherman who must pay $10 extra a month in slip fees because less than half of her income comes from fishing.
"There's a lot of people who are very upset," said Mike Moore, who has fished the Santa Barbara Channel for 14 years. Moore claims that he was denied a commercial slip because he hadn't yet finished paying off his boat, and thus lacked the ownership documents required by harbor officials.
Fishermen, who have collected 200 signatures on a petition submitted to county officials earlier this month, acknowledge that many of their individual complaints sound small, but they say they add up to a pattern of harassment that interferes with day-to-day business. They include allegations that the Harbor Patrol refused to let a fishing crew sleep on a boat overnight without supervision and that one boat operator was denied access to the harbor because the vessel was registered in his brother's name.
They also want the county to remove harbor Capt. Peter Costello from his post because they claim he is overzealous and capricious in enforcing regulations.
Other harbor businessmen have joined in the call for Costello's removal. "We've been rebuffed by Capt. Costello with less than the courtesy expected of a public servant," said Carl Allenthorpe of Newmark Yacht Sales. "His attitude turns people off."
Harbor officials say that Costello merely enforces existing rules and that complaints against him are unfounded. They deny claims that the harbor discriminates against fishermen.
"There's no attempt on our part to squeeze out commercial fishing. We're just trying to carry out the rules," said Peter S. Pedroff, director of the county's General Services Agency, which administers the harbor.
County Building Dock
He points to a $350,000 commercial fishing dock that the county is building as evidence of its commitment to the industry. The 150-foot wharf at the harbor's western end near Tugs Restaurant is to be completed in about 90 days, county officials say.
Pedroff also says the county is meeting with California Coastal Commission officials and commercial fishermen to re-evaluate commercial fishing regulations drawn up in 1982 when the harbor opened. He said the rules will be modified if they are no longer appropriate.
The Harbor Patrol now decides whether to grant a fisherman's request for a slip after checking the boat owner's fish sale receipts and scrutinizing the vessel's log and fuel records.
Some fishermen complain that the harbor staff counts one sale receipt as equivalent to one day's fishing, despite the fact that boats might spend days at sea with little to show for it.
"They don't want us commercial guys around. They'll do anything to give us a bad time," said Richard Smith, a 10-year Ventura County fisherman. Smith said the county recently refused to let a Washington fisherman dock in the harbor because he could not provide income tax returns.
Local commercial fishermen say dozens of working boats have been denied access to the harbor over the years.
"We hear this from fishermen up and down the coast," Reed said. "We have no way of knowing how many there really are because they come into the harbor, they're turned down and they leave."
Harbor officials dispute this, despite the fact that only 13 of the 66 slips on the commercial boating dock have been awarded to fishermen. The others are occupied by recreational craft, Harbor Manager Frank Anderson said, because the shallow harbor waters and the 25-foot-and-under slips cannot accommodate many of the larger fishing craft.
But, Anderson said, "anyone who is a true commercial fisherman has not been turned away."
Coastal Commission regulations are designed to protect and encourage local fishing industries, but fishermen say the harbor favors yachts and retail marinas because they bring in more revenue without the odors and industrial equipment that accompany commercial operations.
"That's ludicrous," Anderson said. He said that recreational boats pay only 25 cents more per foot of boat space and that all boat rates at Channel Islands Harbor are lower than those at Port Hueneme and Ventura, the county's only other harbors.