Trawling outlook sows shock, fear among fishermen

Jonathan Brinckman The Oregonian

Warrenton, Oregon

-- Sally Smotherman is the matriarch of a dying dynasty.

At 66, she owns three trawlers: the 58-foot Cape St. James, the 63-foot Pacific Hustler and the 72-foot Sea Blazer. Two of the boats are run by her sons Scott, 43, and Russ, 45; the third by a hired skipper. Another son, Kelly, 38, runs his own trawler, the 62-foot Miss Mary.

You'd think the four Smotherman boats -- and the legacy of three generations of hard work -- would guarantee security for the family. They don't.

A panel of state and federal regulators meets today in San Francisco to consider closing the entire continental shelf to commercial trawling next year. In doing so, they'll decide the Smothermans' fate.

Fisherman say such a precipitous closure, which regulators say would protect four declining species of rockfish, would be lethal to many in the trawling business.

"The boys will have the boats, but it's not clear that they will be able to make a living off them," said Smotherman, whose father was a fisherman and whose late husband, Eddie, was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman. "It's really sad. We've worked all these years, and we won't have anything to hand down to the family."

Warrenton and nearby Astoria are home to 46 trawlers, the largest fleet in Oregon. Most of the boats, many of them streaked with rust, are lined up in berths in the Warrenton Boat Basin. Each has a tangle of antennae and other electronic gear above the wheelhouse and two distinctive 6-foot diameter drums at the stern. The trawlers harvest fish by dragging nets, stored on the drums, across the ocean floor.

Allowed harvests of bottomfish -- a group of species, including rockfish and sole, targeted by trawlers -- have dropped by 40 percent in the past six years, sharply cutting the annual incomes of West Coast trawlers.

But now the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which begins a four-day meeting today, is poised to close vast areas of the ocean to commercial trawling. An advisory panel to the council has recommended prohibiting all trawling from 50 fathoms depth, or 300 feet, out to 150 fathoms depth, or 900 feet. That's the region frequented by three species the federal government has declared overfished: bocaccio, canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish. These species typically show up as snapper in your grocery case.

The advisory panel said it may further be necessary to prohibit trawling to a depth of 350 fathoms, or 2,100 feet, to protect a fourth overfished species, darkblotched rockfish. New restrictions also may be imposed on recreational fisheries.

Ripple Effect

Disbelief washes through Warrenton and Astoria, coastal communities battered by salmon declines and restrictions and increasingly dependent on trawling. Shock is everywhere: in boats, on docks, in the fish-processing plants, in marine-supply stores, and in the restaurants and bars frequented by trawler skippers and their crews.

It was once possible to make a $100,000 a year or more as a trawler skipper, perhaps half that as a deckhand -- prized work in these parts. Now some trawl skippers say they will be lucky to make $35,000 this year.

Next year, of course, is a dark mystery. With access to their most productive fishing grounds potentially blocked, mystery quickly turns to doom.

"Everybody's stunned," said Dan Parker, 52, aboard his 88-foot trawler, the Sea Eagle, docked with 26 other trawlers last week in the Warrenton harbor. "Nobody can believe what happened over the last five years. What's about to happen is incomprehensible."

The damage extends beyond harvests. With restricted fishing grounds, trawlers lose value.

Parker paid $475,000 in 1987 to build his steel-hulled Sea Eagle, complete with a spacious wood-paneled galley that gives his vessel the feel of a luxury yacht. Boats such as his, he said, sold for $1 million in the early 1990s. Recently, he said, a boat similar to the Sea Eagle sold for $275,000.

Weighing Options

Many trawl skippers don't know whether they will be able to make a living at all. Among them is Gary Smith, 46, the skipper of the 60-foot Pacific Conquest.

"It doesn't look good," he said, repairing a net on a parking lot near the Warrenton docks. "I've been fishing all my life, and now I've got to start thinking of doing something else. I'm wondering what else I can do."

Tom Morrison, skipper of the 65-foot Pacific Queen, caught 30,998 pounds of bottomfish on a four-day fishing trip ending Friday. The catch, mostly dover and petrale sole, with some yellowtail and other rockfish, was worth about $14,000 at Pacific Coast Seafoods, a processing plant in Warrenton.

That sounds good, until you learn that the harvest limits now in place mean Morrison can only make one such trip a month. Morrison's trawler delivered $400,000 worth of fish each year in the early 1990s; he says the current limits mean he'll be lucky to gross $180,000 this year.

"They've been whittling away and whittling away," Morrison said. "They can only whittle away so much before we're out of business."

Clarence Clark, a clean-up worker at Pacific Coast, is not optimistic. "I'll be losing hours next year," he predicts, drinking a beer at Bubbas Sports Bar & Grill. "It's looking grim. A lot of work is going to dry up."

Jon Englund, president of Englund Marine Supply Co. Inc., the top marine outfitter in Astoria, said news of the proposed closures is hard for everyone connected to trawling industry. "We thought we had seen the bottom, and now this," he said.

Mandate for Recovery

Regulators say federal law leaves them no choice: They must issue rules that ensure the recovery of overfished stocks. The problem is that the most depleted stocks, such as yelloweye rockfish, travel widely and mingle with more abundant fish. Yelloweye are so depleted that even if harvests were stopped completely, scientists calculate, it would take 96 years for the fish to recover off Oregon and Washington.

The council likely will prohibit harvests of the most depleted stocks and restrict harvest of fisheries where depleted stocks are caught accidentally.

"We have to make some hard decisions," said Hans Radtke, chairman of the council. "If I have any advice, it's people need to do everything they can to downsize, cut their costs. That's the only thing they can do if they want to stay in the trawling business."

Sally Smotherman, sitting at the dining room table of her Warrenton home with her son, Scott, doodled on an envelope. She didn't look at her son.

"This used to be a business where you could make good money, a business worth having," she said. "Now it looks really bad. It's hard to see this happening to us." You can reach Jonathan Brinckman at 503-221-8190 or by e-mail at