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Fishermen Wary as Seattle Casts a Wider Revenue Net

Economy: Adding private boats at the terminal is a survival issue, the city says. But others fear the area could become 'one great big tourist stop.'


SEATTLE — Years ago, the Seattle waterfront was a grimy testament to man's ability to haul a living out of the sea. Fish canneries lined the harbor, along with cold-storage lockers and loading docks for timber and coal. Today, they've given way to restaurants, trinket shops, an Imax theater and an outdoor concert stage.

"I remember fish slime in the street every day," John Garfield, who fished out of Seattle for much of his life, recalls fondly. "Now, you don't see a single fishing boat down there. It's just one great big tourist stop."

The evidence that Seattle remains the headquarters of the North Pacific Fishing Fleet lies a few miles away at Fishermen's Terminal, the last major urban commercial fishing port left on the West Coast.

Its tarred docks, piles of fishing nets and rows of trawlers are a window into the old Seattle--the workingman's town that was here before the dot-com explosion, before the mirrored downtown high-rises and biotech companies, before many of the small boats that sailed out of Elliott Bay had sunken bathtubs and cocktail bars.

Now, even that corner of the past, it seems, is opening the door to the new Seattle. The Port Commission last week voted to open the gritty harbor for the first time to recreational boats, a move many fishermen fear will propel the terminal toward the same fate as San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and Monterey's Cannery Row.

"Somebody said today, 'Seattle's becoming a playground for the rich.' Where's our sense of values here?" complained Peter Knutson, a college professor and longtime commercial gill-net fisherman.

"Everybody hates a class war, and I think in a lot of ways that's what we have here," added John Foss, head of seafood procurement for a local food co-op. "We don't want to lose the small family fishermen that tie up to the . . . wall and provide us with seafood."

Harbor officials emphasize that fishing boats will always have priority at the 89-year-old terminal, home to about 300 fishing vessels that ply the North Pacific from Oregon to Alaska's Bering Sea. But the collapse of the fishing industry over the last 20 years, they say, has left them with no choice but to consider other customers.

As it is, more than 30% of the slips stand vacant, and without new sources of revenue, officials say, finding money to maintain and upgrade fishing facilities will be difficult.

"Is it good stewardship to allow one of your facilities to run with a 30% to 40% vacancy rate?" general manager Jim Serrill asked. "My personal view is it's better to have recreational boats in there and keep the place viable than it is to have the place not be viable."

In the 1980s, the Fishermen's Terminal was full, with a waiting list. But that was before the collapse of the Pacific salmon runs that fed much of the Puget Sound fleet. Seattle-based fishermen turned to Alaska, but even there, many stocks are down, huge industrial trawlers dominate the market and the price of wild salmon has plummeted with farm-raised fish flooding the market.

Coho salmon revenue in Washington was $23.6 million in 1987; last year, it was $1.6 million. The number of commercial salmon fishing licenses has declined by more than 70% since the 1980s.

Fishermen's Terminal remains a major industrial center, generating 5,300 jobs, $246 million in wages and $200 million in purchases even in recent down years. But with mounting vacancies, the Seattle Port Authority went from breaking even on the terminal to losing money every year--as much as $1.6 million in 1995. The port broke even for the first time this year, only by turning to real estate as a revenue source.

The $250,000 in new revenue that could be generated by bringing in recreational boats--from small sailboats to luxury yachts--could keep rates low for fishing boats by shifting costs for $10 million worth of improvements to pleasure boaters, harbor managers said.

The steady deterioration of the terminal has been a point of friction for years. Fishermen say rotting docks and poor support services--the terminal's only large crane began working only this week after nearly a year of disrepair--is contributing to the high vacancy rate by driving fishermen to other harbors such as Port Townsend, Bellingham and Anacortes.

Harbor officials admit that repairs are sorely needed and point out that recreational boat revenues could help pay for more by providing leverage to take on new debt. The terminal is midway through a $38-million repair and upgrade program intended primarily to benefit commercial fishing vessels.

But if the Port Authority can't find fishing boats to fill the vacant slips, it may make more sense to tailor some of the new docks for private boats, Serrill said. "How do you deal with a facility with a decreasing customer base when we have marketed to the customer base and they still don't seem to be there?"

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