Don Yost, harbormaster in Coos Bay for the past 18 years, was handed a list of seven salmon fishermen and instructed to seize their boats because they had fallen months behind in paying their mooring fees.
Yost, who knew every man on the list, quit rather than complied.
“I was directed to lock their boats up, put them up on dry land in the shipyard, and effectively end their livelihoods. And I — I drew the line,” said Yost, who resigned in mid-February. “That’s essentially the last nail in the proverbial coffin for them, and I wasn’t going to be the one driving the nail.”
Ultimately, the port’s management backed off, but the blowup demonstrated how desperate things have become for salmon fishermen on the West Coast.
Nearly all salmon fishing was prohibited last year along 700 miles of the Oregon and California coast because of three straight years in which the numbers of spawning salmon returning to the Klamath River were low. The state of Oregon came up with $1 million in emergency relief that helped some fishermen stave off bankruptcy, but California offered nothing, and federal aid never materialized either.
Klamath River salmon now appear to be rebounding strongly, and many of the restrictions will probably be eased this spring by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
But owners of many of the 1,200 boats of the West Coast salmon fleet say they cannot pay for the engine overhauls and safety gear they need to put to sea when the season opens April 10. Many fishermen are said to be just one diesel engine breakdown away from bankruptcy.
“Spirits were high” when federal officials announced earlier this month that this could be a good fishing season, said Jeff Reeves, a salmon fisherman and vice chairman of the Oregon Salmon Commission. “Then there was the realization by a lot of folks that they don’t have the money to get their boats ready to go fishing.”
'Feast-or-famine type of industry'
Over the past two decades, the West Coast salmon fleet has fallen to half what it used to be. Each year more fishermen abandon boats they cannot afford to maintain or keep tied up to a dock. They take jobs as crewmen on other boats or bail out of fishing altogether. Ice plants and shipyards close, making it tougher on the fishermen who hang on. Most salmon fishermen are in their 50s and 60s. Few young ones are breaking in.
“It’s been rough on salmon fishermen,” said Dan Temko, harbormaster for Pillar Point Harbor in Halfmoon Bay, Calif., where four abandoned salmon boats were impounded and dismantled this year. “Just like farmers, it’s a feast-or-famine type of industry.”
One big reason for salmon fishermen’s troubles has been the Klamath River, which flows through southern Oregon and Northern California.
It was once the third-biggest producer of salmon on the West Coast. But the Klamath was ravaged by gold mining in the 1800s and heavy logging in the 1900s. Hydroelectric dams cut off 300 miles of spawning habitat. And overfishing and parasites took their toll.
Bad year for fishermen
Last year, there were plenty of salmon from the Sacramento and Columbia rivers, but few Klamath chinook. So authorities banned commercial fishing for 200 miles north and south of the river’s mouth, catching Charleston in the no-fishing zone. Salmon fishing was severely restricted along an additional 300 miles of coastline.
The total West Coast catch in 2006 was 1,761 tons, or just 12 percent of a typical year, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The U.S. Commerce Department put the losses to fishermen at $16 million.
A $60 million aid package in Congress is tied to an Iraq war funding measure that President Bush has said he will veto because it includes a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The aid from Oregon worked out to $8,000 for Reeves. That was enough to stave off bankruptcy after his engine broke down, but far from the $70,000 he normally grosses. A fisherman out of Charleston, Punch Guerin, got just $1,739.
Desperate and 'dead in the water'
Guerin, at one point, was so desperate — the engine on his boat had broken down, and his wife had cancer — that he was prepared to burn his vessel and go to jail rather than let the port impound it. The port’s management did not force the issue.
“I was dead in the water,” Guerin said. “I am 60 years old. Nobody else is getting my life for nothing. If it’s going to be taken away, I’ll take it away.”
At Charleston, out of 103 salmon boats, 41 enrolled in a program allowing them to defer 2006 mooring payments until they got disaster relief, said port spokesman Martin Callery. Three boats were impounded in February, none since Yost quit.
“There’s been some misunderstandings and accusations that we are just a heartless agency,” Callery said. “I truly believe what we do in Charleston is in support of the salmon fleet and all the fisheries. Last year we helped the ice plant get back into operation because the guy was losing money.”
Yost said he could not see the point of impounding boats before it became clear whether this year’s season would allow fishermen to pay their bills.
As for his resignation, “if it had no other impact, at least it gave some breathing room to the guys in the fleet.”