After years of delay, a $385,000 commercial fishing dock is inching toward completion at the county-run Channel Islands Harbor. But more such facilities are needed, say state coastal authorities, who worry that commercial fishing might suffer under a planned $20-million, tourist-oriented redevelopment of the harbor.
In a letter last month, the California Coastal Commission warned that the 10-year Ventura County plan to build 60,000 square feet of commercial office space and double the size of its Fisherman's Village could hurt commercial fishing by increasing competition for parking, water and storage. And it expressed concern over the county's slow progress in completing the dock.
"They've been dragging their feet," said Merle Betz Jr., the coastal program analyst who wrote the letter in response to an environmental document submitted by the county. The commercial dock "was supposed to have been put in 10 years ago, and we're concerned because it hasn't been completed. If you look in the Coastal Act, there's a priority given to commercial fishing."
But that priority is not reflected in the harbor, the commission's letter said. "It is inappropriate to contemplate low-priority uses in the harbor while high-priority uses languish," Betz wrote.
By comparison, Betz cited the one year that it took Ventura Harbor to install its docks, hoists and refrigerated warehouses, which are used by more than 100 fishermen.
Ventura County officials maintain that they are committed to improving commercial fishing in Channel Islands Harbor but that a series of unforeseen problems have set them back several years.
They also downplayed the Coastal Commission letter, saying they would address the agency's concerns in an environmental impact report that they are preparing on the redevelopment plan.
The letter "is not as harsh as it sounds," said Ron Blakemore, who heads planning and development of recreation services for the county's General Services Agency.
"We . . . see that commercial fishing needs need to be addressed. Our emphasis is beginning to turn that way," said Blakemore, who noted that Channel Islands Harbor was originally designed with recreational boating in mind.
But for at least three years, the Coastal Commission has pushed the harbor to improve its commercial fishing facilities.
A 1986 staff report found that "the basic cause for commercial fishing facility failure has been the local jurisdictions' predilection for the construction of recreational boating facilities. Such local action is in conflict with the Coastal Act."
At that time, the county said it planned to begin construction of a commercial dock in February, 1987, and to open the dock, related hoists and ice facilities for refrigerating fresh fish by June 1, 1987.
Harbormaster Frank Anderson said in an interview this week that the commercial dock, equipped with only one one-ton crane, is expected to open in August. There are no plans to put in a second crane, he said, and a refrigerated facility is probably 18 months away.
The county has leased the land near the commercial dock to a local businessman, Fred Buenger, who has an option to build next to the wharf a warehouse facility that might include refrigerated storage and a small seafood market.
But for now, Anderson said, "we're all working to define what the real needs are." He said the dock and the one-ton crane should meet current needs of the fishermen.
Commercial fishermen dispute that and say they are exasperated by the years of foot-dragging. They want the county to put some of the $2 million to $2.5 million that the harbor generates in revenue each year into upgrading its commercial fishing facilities.
"For years, Channel Islands Harbor commercial fishermen have waited for the completion of dock facilities that would provide ice and machinery to unload their catch. Two dock cranes are essential," Brian Jenison of the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen's Assn. wrote in a letter to local newspapers.
"You've got your sea urchins, your cod fishermen, so many different types of fisheries, and one crane is not sufficient," said Victoria Reed, another local fisherman.
The debate over the commercial dock is the latest twist in a lengthy dispute between Channel Islands Harbor and many of its commercial fishermen. In recent months, fishermen have gathered 200 signatures on a petition that asks Ventura County to relax rules that they say prevent many fishermen from qualifying for boat slips at Channel Islands Harbor.
Although Channel Islands Harbor has a 66-slip commercial dock, it has doled out only 13 of those slips to working fishermen. County officials maintain that they don't discriminate against commercial fishermen. They say the strict language that defines commercial fishermen serves to distinguish real fishermen from dilettantes who want tax breaks and lower boat-slip rental rates.