Farmers aren't First Left High and Dryby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, September 4, 2001
EUREKA, California commercial fishermen along the coast of Northern California know what it's like to be a Klamath Basin farmer and have your water shut off by the federal government.
That doesn't mean they sympathize with the farmers, however.
Something similar happened to fishermen here in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when one of the West Coast's best fisheries was closed to protect dwindling stocks of salmon in the Klamath River.
The region is still reeling, and bitterness is everywhere. Anger at the federal and state governments flows unchecked on docks and in restaurants and bars.
Still, many who own fishing boats think the federal government was right to stop the flow of irrigation water to more that 1,000 farms in Southern Oregon and Northern California. The flows were stopped to keep Upper Klamath Lake high enough for threatened Lost River suckers and short-nosed suckers, and to keep Klamath River flows high enough for threatened coho salmon.
"Those farmers are water robbers," said Tom Stockley, 41, a sandy-haired fisherman who motored into port three days earlier from a three-month trip to the San Francisco area, where salmon fishing is still allowed. "Commercial fishermen have given up, given up, given up," he said. "I think it's time for someone else to give up something."
Farmers in the Klamath Basin gave up most of their water April 6, when the federal Bureau of Reclamation closed the head gates at Upper Klamath Lake dam.
Fishermen here gave up their salmon 15 years ago, when California regulators and the National Marine Fisheries Service began closing the Northern California salmon fishery. The agencies each year expanded the closed area and the closure times, culminating in 1991 when commercial salmon fishing was prohibited year-round from Point Arena, 100 miles north of San Francisco, to Port Orford, in Southern Oregon.
"We lost our fishing grounds like salami, one slice at a time," said David Bitts, a commercial fishermen having breakfast with Stockley at the Woodley Island Marina. "Now farmers are getting the short end of the stick, just like we did."
Switching or leaving Most Northern California salmon fishermen have either switched to more difficult and expensive types of fishing, or found other work. Those who keep fishing for salmon, such as Bitts and Stockley, leave the area each spring and summer and travel hundreds of miles south, to places where commercial salmon fishing still is allowed.
Eureka was once the top salmon port in California. In 1980 it averaged 150,000 chinook salmon delivered annually to eight fish-processing companies in town. Only 1,500 chinook were delivered to Eureka last year. Just one fish-processing company survives.
The economic value of commercial salmon fishing to Eureka and surrounding communities fell from $13.4 million in 1980 to $63,000 last year, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
The Eureka waterfront now is lined with the rotting pilings of former docks that fisherman say were once three abreast with salmon trollers. An abandoned dry-dock business sits on the water's edge north of the marina, the words "No Trespassing" scrawled in white on weathered boards.
"The town is dead now," said Jack McKellar, 78, chairman of the Eureka City Council and a long-time city resident. "There is nothing here anymore."
The scene is even more grim in the harbor of Crescent City, a fishing community 80 miles north of Eureka. There, salmon trollers with "For Sale" signs rust in their slips. Two trollers await demolition in an adjacent marine junkyard, their towers looming over the harbor.
The owner of one of those for-sale boats, 50-year-old Clay Speaker, gave up salmon fishing in 1992 to become a prison guard in Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security prison in Crescent City with nearly 4,000 inmates.
"At heart I'm a fisherman," Speaker said. "This is a whole different world."
Speaker knows that the farmers are suffering without water for irrigation, but he says that salmon will never recover unless enough water is left in rivers. "I hear the farmers crying and screaming, but I'm not real sympathetic," he said. "We've bit the bullet for 15 years."
Others fishermen feel different. Randy Pincombe, 44, selling albacore tuna from the deck of 48-foot converted salmon troller docked in the Crescent City harbor, used to fish for salmon. He has switched to tuna and crab so he can remain near his family.
Pincombe is deeply angry at the government for restricting salmon fishing and now says it is wrongly using the Endangered Species Act as an excuse to take water from farmers. Even if strong salmon runs return to the Klamath River, Pincombe expects salmon fishing to remain closed.
"We aren't ever going to be able to fish for salmon again," Pincombe said. "Why should we care what happens to Klamath fish? We won't get to fish them anyway."
A poor substitute
Some of the surviving fishermen in Crescent City have switched to trawling, putting huge nets on the sterns of larger boats that they use to drag the ocean floor for English sole and other groundfish.
But trawl fishing is threatened, too. Groundfish harvest levels have been cut sharply, and the California regulators have proposed turning a reef off Crescent City into a marine sanctuary in which no fishing would be allowed.
A handwritten sign on a dock ramp captures Crescent City's anger:
My wife -- yes
My dog -- maybe
My fishing grounds -- never
Trawl fishing has been a poor substitute for salmon fishing.
Trawling, with cumbersome nets, requires a three-person crew. Dozens of fish species are indiscriminately pulled from the ocean floor, and hundreds of fish of the wrong species -- many dead or dying because of the pressure change from being pulled up from 1,000 feet or more -- must be thrown over the side.
Trolling is another story. There is something special about trolling for salmon, fishermen in Northern California will tell you. Compared to trawling, it is simple. It requires hanging four to six wires off the boat, each carrying six to eight baited hooks attached to monofilament lines. Wires are pulled in as quickly as possible as soon as a fish strikes. It is exciting work, especially when the fish are biting.
Stockley loves it. He left Eureka on his 40-foot wooden troller in late April, heading for waters south of San Francisco that opened for salmon April 1. He moved north as the seasons progressed, first up to Point Reyes on May 29, then up to Point Arena on July 18. He got back to Eureka in early August.
The bite was low, and Stockley couldn't afford to pay his deck hand; he dropped him off in San Francisco, where the deck hand joined a circus. But trolling expenses are low -- each four-day trip cost about $150 for fuel, $110 for ice and $80 for groceries, a total of $340. An average catch grosses $3,000 -- roughly 2,000 pounds of salmon that sells for about $1.50 a pound.
Nights were tense. Stockley anchored if the water was shallow enough; or he just drifted, leaving all his lights ablaze and waking up every hour or so to check the radar for oncoming ships. "You've got to be alert," Stockley said.
It's wrenching being a North Coast salmon fisherman forced to travel hundreds of miles or find other work, because the oceans off Northern California are full of fish, mostly from the Sacramento and the Columbia rivers.
Swimming with them, however, are Klamath River fish, weakened from low river flows and sullied water from the upstream Klamath Project. Fishing for them is restricted to protect those weak stocks.
"There are so many fish in the Pacific Ocean," Stockley said. "It's pretty discouraging to be in the ocean and not be able to catch them."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs