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Idled Salmon Fishermen Fear for Their Futures

One says that with the shortened California chinook season, the feds essentially laid him off.

July 22, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

MOSS LANDING, Calif. — A landlubber Rick Sullivan wasn't meant to be. Quitting school at 15, he hired on aboard a commercial tuna boat out of this foggy little fishing port, launching a quarter-century career on the ocean.

Like a buoy on the swells of Monterey Bay, this fisherman's life has bobbed ever since. Sullivan has seen big-catch days of albacore, rockfish and salmon, but also survived trips on feeble boats and tangled with crewmates surly after weeks at sea.

Through good days and bad, there has always been the lure of fish to be caught -- until this summer of discontent.

Instead of heading to sea in what is normally high season for the Pacific's runs of chinook salmon, the 40-year-old fisherman spends a morning in a living-room recliner -- wife off to her job, cocker spaniel Oreo by his side -- glued to C-SPAN, listening to the discordant sounds of Congress.

His government has essentially laid him off, Sullivan says.

Worried by dwindling salmon runs on the troubled Klamath River, federal fishing regulators have slashed this year's season for chinook -- a prime cash crop for the West Coast commercial fleet -- to a few odd weeks scattered across the normal six-month season.

June and most of July, historically among the best months for catching salmon, are shut down for Sullivan and his like along a 700-mile swath of Northern California and Oregon. When the season resumes toward month's end, they'll face a stiff quota of 75 fish a week, fewer than a competent commercial salmon troller can hook on a good morning.

With those limits, Sullivan and other fishermen expect to catch just 10% of the salmon they might in a successful season.

That's hardly enough to finance a trip to the fuel dock, barely enough to buy tackle, and not nearly enough to pay the harbor slip fee and buy insurance and permits and cover a boat loan, home mortgage, child support and gas for the truck. Folks are gloomy on the docks. Tensions are rising back home.

The other day, Sullivan watched the House of Representatives wage a daylong procedural tug-of-war over federal disaster assistance to keep the imperiled West Coast salmon fleet afloat.

So far, the best Congress has to offer is the prospect of $10 million, a fraction of the $81 million sought by California and Oregon lawmakers. The Bush administration, blamed by fishermen for causing the Klamath's salmon problems by diverting too much water to farmers during drought years, only recently began edging toward a full-blown bailout.

"All my buddies and I are sitting around doing nothing right now when we should be fishing," Sullivan lamented.

What cuts deep is an uneasy feeling that goes beyond the immediate peril.

Up and down A-Dock -- port of call to the Moss Landing fleet -- commercial fishermen such as Sullivan worry about the future of their industry: the motley collection of boats and the distribution network of packers, fish markets and restaurants.

Fishing was one of the pioneer industries of the West. But like the miners, loggers and vaqueros who came and went before them, commercial fishermen face a vanishing way of life.

Like a dirge, Sullivan can click off the decline of both crewmates and the catch. Rockfish are mostly off-limits and halibut are hard to find. Bottom trawlers are being bought off to ease damage to the ocean floor. Nearly all the tuna canneries have moved overseas. Dungeness crab has as many bad years as good.

Now the chinook -- a legendary migratory fish of the West, the prized king salmon of the marketplace -- has been put nearly off-limits.

Young guys used to get into the game as Sullivan did: working as a crewman and saving to buy a brine-crusted vessel.

No more. Recent years have seen boats head off to the bone yard. One old rig Sullivan leased is now a dilapidated backdrop for a fish restaurant. "I still wouldn't want to be on it in the parking lot," Sullivan jokes unsympathetically.

When he began fishing in the early 1980s, California had nearly 8,000 commercial vessels and 11,000 crewmen fishing for salmon. This year, the state issued licenses to 1,357 salmon boats and 1,432 fishermen.

That attrition has left Sullivan, at 40, one of the youngest commercial fishermen at Moss Landing.

"I'm the next generation of old fisherman," he said. "After me, there's no one else."

Surfing first drew Sullivan to the sea. When he hit Aptos High School, just up the scenic bend of Monterey Bay, he found himself enjoying the waves more than books.

Sullivan quit school and lived for months on the beach, holing up for a while in a tree fort, surfing away the days.

Hearing about the quick cash earned on fishing boats, he pounded the docks to find work on a tuna boat heading out to the international date line.

Sullivan was quickly making 20 times what a typical 1980s teenager earned in a summer. He banked $25,000 after the fishing season, rented an apartment and surfed through the winter.

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