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A bid to buoy spirits on EBay

Hard-pressed Eureka family turns to the Internet to call attention to the plight of commercial fishermen.

February 08, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Like nearly every other West Coast fisherman's wife, Ronnie Pellegrini fretted as a near-shutdown of last year's salmon season hammered California's commercial fleet.

Enough is enough, she decided one day. So she turned on the computer in her Eureka home -- and turned to EBay.

"Fishing Family of Four Generations for Adoption," read her online auction pitch, followed by a description that laid out her family's century-long story: Their link to Humboldt Bay's pioneer fishermen, how they troll with environmentally friendly hook and line, and how they've grappled with federal fishing "overregulation" that ended with the economic disaster of 2006.

A photo showed all of them -- Ronnie, husband Paul, two teenage daughters and three dogs -- on a dock beside their 56-foot Celtic Aire.

"Desperate times deserve desperate measures," Ronnie Pellegrini said. "I'm sad. I'm frustrated. Fishing is all my husband has ever done. But we took a 95% hit on our income last year. How could anyone stand that?"

Of course Pellegrini has no plans to adopt out her children, let alone the dogs or husband.

Instead of instant family, she offered the winning bidder regular updates and photos that would chronicle the venerable fishing clan's efforts to keep afloat. Bidders were also invited, the ad said, "to encourage and pray for this family, and advocate for it if you wish."

More than anything, Pellegrini said, the Internet pitch was meant to get people talking, prod the blogosphere a bit and press for the attention of Congress, which so far has balked at bailing out the industry.

Relatively few on the Internet appear to have even seen Pellegrini's EBay effort.

By Wednesday afternoon, with the auction set to end at 9:36 a.m. today, the ad had been viewed 184 times.

Officials at EBay also had learned of the ad's existence and were conducting a quick review to see if it violated their policies -- in particular those concerning charitable causes and political pitches, said EBay spokeswoman Catherine England.

The adoption gambit, she said, might be a first for EBay. The closest thing she'd seen to it was a family from the Pacific Northwest that tried to auction itself off to work for a cruise line.

"I can completely understand why someone would look to EBay in a situation like this," England said of Pellegrini. "I don't know if she'll get the financial relief she seeks, but when it comes to emotional encouragement, the EBay community is a wonderful place to feel connected to other people."

Pellegrini wasn't out for personal publicity and she didn't bother to promote her oddball auction item. The Los Angeles Times learned of it only because her mother sent an e-mail to a reporter who profiled the Pellegrini family in an article seven years ago.

Still, 18 bids came in for the family, the top one at $82.

Bill Roventini of Sebastapol wrote Pellegrini to offer "prayers and thoughts to you and your marvelous family."

Another EBayer known as "junkmansj," from Cape May, N.J., told the family to be "proud of who you are and of that 100-year heritage," and said he wished "I could bid a million dollars."

Those words mean a lot to Ronnie Pellegrini -- even after EBay alerted her late Wednesday afternoon that her ad had been taken down because it violated the company's charity policy concerning solicitation of donations.

Last season, Paul Pellegrini fished a total of three days for salmon. It wasn't worth going out any longer. He would have burned more in fuel than he could make from the heavily restricted catch.

The reason for the fishing limits is the troubled Klamath River.

With dams that block migratory salmon runs, water diverted to farms and chronic outbreaks of fish-killing diseases and parasites, the Klamath's salmon population has fallen to troubling lows.

Pellegrini said her family had to get a Small Business Administration loan of $60,000 and take out a home equity loan to make ends meet. There was the $23,000 annual boat payment and $25,000 for insuring the vessel, captain and crew.

They don't know any other way but to fight.

Since Paul's great-grandfather Virgilio left Italy in 1910 to come to America, a Pellegrini has fished North Coast waters. They've seen big catches and heartache. Paul and Ronnie met at the funeral for their brothers, who died together at sea a couple decades back.

Ronnie Pellegrini said her husband and daughters were pretty upset when she posted the ad -- particularly the girls, 16-year-old Eryn and 14-year-old Michaela, even after she explained that bidders wouldn't get to keep them.

Paul worried that it might make the family look like a charity case. No way, he said, would he let his family sink.

But Ronnie Pellegrini said she felt compelled to do something. Although Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have begun a new push for $60 million in bailout funds, the winter crab season was abysmal. Predictions for the coming salmon season remain sketchy.

As for the auction, she said she didn't really want the money. The winner could simply write the family a letter and maybe call Congress.

"More than anything, this is about encouragement," she said.

She said she just wanted to know there were people out there who cared about America's fishermen. She needed to know that.

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