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Morro Bay Fishing Fleet Losing a Rock

The Giannini supply firm, now closing, has kept locals afloat for decades. Its fortunes have ebbed with a sea change in the industry.

March 11, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

MORRO BAY, Calif. — Just about everyone on the docks knows the Gianninis.

For 46 years, the family has run a marine supply house a couple of blocks from the wharf. When times were good, they would outfit whole fleets from aisles crammed with such items as tiny brass grommets and huge spools that could spin out miles of line and countless acres of net. When times weren't so good, they would carry debt-ridden fishermen on their books season after season -- until the next big haul, or maybe the one after that.

But that was before competition from cheap imported fish, before diesel fuel that runs upward of $3 a gallon and before environmental rules that severely limit the amount of fish a fisherman can catch, and when and where and how.

Now the fishing fleet at Morro Bay is down from several hundred boats to perhaps 50. And, amid coils of anchor chain and crates of engine parts, Giannini's is hung with hand-painted signs that say, in big red letters: "ALL SALES FINAL."

In a month or so, the business will close for good.

On a cold morning in a back room of the store's nearly vacant second floor, 90-year-old Joe Giannini sat with his daughter-in-law Eileen, who has run Giannini's Marine Service & Equipment in its waning days. Wearily, Giannini, a trim man with a crown of white hair and a voice that still can boom through the fog, issued an obituary for the way of life that has defined his community for generations.

"When you think about it, it breaks your heart," he said. "But there's just no future here."

In 1973, Giannini sold the store he had established 13 years earlier to his son Jody, who had started working there in high school. But, beset by health problems and depressed over the store's prospects, Jody, a well-known advocate for the local fishing industry, committed suicide last June. He was 57.

"He knew the business couldn't be a business much longer," said Eileen, his widow, her eyes filling with tears. "His biggest regret was shutting down what his dad started."

Joe Giannini pursed his lips and nodded. He is a former mayor of Morro Bay, a former publisher of the town newspaper, a former commercial fisherman -- and soon he will be a former owner of a defunct business that served a dying industry.

In its day, the store was so successful that it sprawled into an adjacent building. Shelves that now are just about bare were piled high with hip waders and rubber boots, bluejeans and yellow slickers, coils of rope, anchors of every size, bilge pumps, diesel stoves, hydraulic whatnots and steel chains with links as big as a fist.

On windy days, fishermen would gather at the store to trade gossip or jaw about the latest environmental proposal.

"If you had a problem with your boat or a problem in your life, it was the place to go," said Rick Algert, Morro Bay's longtime harbor director.

Today Giannini's has the somber feel of a mom-and-pop store on its last legs. A tattered banner thanks customers for their years of loyalty. Bargain hunters quietly check out the prices on bolt-cutters and halogen lamps, and thumb through navigation charts that guide them to, in some cases, waters that can no longer be fished.

"We had 'em all," said Giannini, poring over a rack of maps. "Here's Anacapa Passage, San Luis Bay -- we had 'em all."

Giannini has the ruddy complexion and thick hands of a man who has spent his life outdoors. He lives alone, still drives, and occasionally is called upon to appraise fishing vessels. When he talks about the sea, he grows as animated as some men do when talking football.

"When I got here, the ocean was alive!" he said. "You could pluck razor clams off of Morro Rock, and big Pismo clams would just wash up on the shore -- you didn't even have to dig! In the tide pools you'd turn over a rock -- and there it all was, just teeming!"

Pismo clams are now so rare that commercial clamming is banned in Pismo Beach, about 25 miles down the coast.

Giannini came to town by accident, in 1946.

Fishing for soupfin shark out of San Francisco, he and his crew on the schooner Arctic came across a disabled fishing boat 100 miles off the coast. They towed the boat, the Joe Jr., to the newly opened harbor at Morro Bay.

In gratitude, the Joe Jr.'s five Italian crew members prepared a shipboard feast of clams and abalone. A couple of girls from the little town of 900 climbed aboard with baskets of chicken and salad. Locals congratulated Giannini on the rescue.

"I thought, 'My God, what a place!' " recalled Giannini. "It was just wonderful."

After three days, he bought a house for $8,500 and asked his wife in Oregon to join him.

"Where's Morro Bay?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said.

Over the years, he became one of the community's biggest boosters.

He helped get the ragtag collection of vacation homes and fishermen's shacks incorporated as a city in 1964.

He pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve Morro Rock, the 587-foot harbor landmark that was being chipped away for road fill.

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