• Fisherman blames Sanctuary guardians for his plight

    by Erika Fiske

    It’s Monday morning, December 24. This evening, many will be gathered around lighted Christmas trees, with hot drinks and cookies, gifts piled high and happy children awaiting Santa. Others will be seated with their Bibles in churches and homes, reading words put down on paper thousands of years ago. Missing from these gatherings will be the increasing numbers of homeless among us—people like those under the trees by Del Monte Shopping Center, talking, smiling and graciously accepting the occasional gift dropped off by locals wanting to share their joy.

    It should be no surprise that there’s a 48-year-old fisherman among this gathering of homeless, telling tales of the sea. His name is Jeffrey, and until two years ago he was a commercial fisherman off the California coast, a job he has loved for more than 30 years.

    Today Jeffrey lives in a tent, shares meals with other homeless and still goes out on the water to fish for his food. Like so many fishermen, and Americans in general, jobs and money aren’t so plentiful anymore. But Jeffrey’s lucky. “I can still feed myself out of the ocean,” he says. Ask him about his life as a fisherman, and he’ll gladly oblige, telling tales of monster fish with sharp teeth living in deep caves, or dangerous storms on rough seas. Jeffrey loves the sea.

    Drying out after days of rain, he wears a shadow of rough stubble across his face and a camouflage cap and clothes to keep himself warm. He smiles and laughs a lot and doesn’t seem to mind that he has no family to go home to for Christmas and New Year’s. Jeffrey appreciates the people seated around him, men and women of all ages, each with their own story. As he speaks, a large, black pickup truck pulls up and a young man brings over a gift for everyone. The contents are divided, and Jeffrey continues on with his story—and how he got into fishing.

    “I was born and raised in Tahoe and fished my whole life. I left high school and went fishing,” Jeffrey says, explaining there were four different landlocked salmon in Tahoe just waiting to be hooked. Although he says he was a “killer track star and skier,” he quit school and, at the urging of a cousin from San Francisco, moved to the coast and took a job on a boat at Pier 45.

    Over the next hour, Jeffrey talks of drag fishing and long lines, and all kinds of fish, from salmon and squid to swordfish and albacore. He mentions the rock cod that spends its life by one rock. He doesn’t hesitate to share his opinions and admits bad practices have decimated fish populations over the years, like gill nets used by the Japanese. With nets that stretched for 10 miles, they emptied the waters of albacore. Jeffrey’s boat once had to travel all the way to Hawaii to find the fish again. Finally, in 1995, fishing with gill nets was stopped, he says.

    “California crab fishing is the hardest fishing I’ve done in my life,” he says, due to the many pots weighing some 130 pounds that have to be dropped into and hauled out of the water. Fishing for albacore is one of Jeffrey’s favorite jobs, because of the skill involved and the fact that each fish has a chance. “We pull them out by hand. It’s the same with salmon,” he adds. “They get away a lot.”

    Unfortunately, commercial fishing has changed over the years. “Now boats want us to sign thick contracts,” Jeffrey says. “I’ve always worked on a handshake. It takes a certain something to be out there. It’s cold, hard, dangerous work. I’ve watched a lot of people pass on.” Contracts or not, many of the jobs just aren’t there anymore. “It’s gotten lean here, because there are no more boats in this area,” he notes. “The Marine Sanctu- ary and Julie Packard have hurt a lot of people. She closed the whole bay to fishing. They want ‘yachties,’ not us. We’re too offensive.”

    Jeffrey has no shortage of opinions, and it’s a toss-up which he dislikes more— sea lions or Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “If a person is bitten by a sea lion, you never hear about it in the news. People come from hundreds of miles to see the sea lions. They’re like big dogs, and they can carry diseases in their bite,” he notes.

    When a bunch of slips were established for commercial fishermen, “Packard bought them all up, so there was nowhere for the fishermen to dock. Then she started saving sea lions,” he complains. “There were so many sea lions in the ‘80s that they got a parasite that ate their livers and kidneys. So many died that they were buried with bulldozers. Anchovies and sardines also got an acid in their blood that killed a lot of birds and sea lions.”

    Jeffrey blames these problems on Packard. “Julie Packard is the Antichrist,” he growls, noting that fish tank sewage from the Aquarium has led to wormy fish in the bay, near the facility. “They have heart worms and liver worms and they’re full of tapeworms,” he says.

    But he doesn’t blame her for everything that’s impacted local waters. “In the early ‘80s, hospitals were dumping stuff into the water, and big squid were beaching themselves and dying,” he adds. Then there are the waters by Carmel, infested by algae and tiny shellfish brought there from other areas.

    While multinational corporations and the energy industry continue to deny global warming, Jeffrey has watched its impact on the oceans, and shares a warning with those who will listen. “The oceans are an awesome thing. When they die, we die. And the corporations don’t care,” he says.

    Jeffrey hopes those lucky enough to live by the Monterey Bay will be especially concerned. “Right here, offshore, we have one of the deepest canyons in the world,” he says, listing the amazing sea life.

    Worldwide overpopulation, pollution and overfishing have already impacted people like Jeffrey—fishermen whose jobs are gone. “Fishermen are sort of like the American farmer,” he says, referring to the disappearance of many small farms over the years as corporations gobbled them up. A similar thing happened among fisher- men, when the corporate ships decimated fish populations.

    “All the fish living on the rocks are ground down by those nets being dragged,” he says. “The American fisherman is being phased out. No one knows it, but we are.”

    Jeffrey has long been concerned about farmed salmon as well. These “corporate” fish have hurt the salmon industry because of negative publicity, health effects and reduced prices. “They have to add color and hormones to these salmon. Baloney costs more than these fish,” he says.

    Although fishing has been his life, there was more to his life than fishing. The woman he shared a home with left after 15 years together, and no one has taken her place. Jeffrey had to make a choice, stay with her, or continue to go out to sea. The sea won. And Jeffrey has never regretted his choice.

    He smiles and laughs again. “Why should I be depressed? It doesn’t help,” he says. “At least I’m still doing something I like—fishing. She didn’t want me fishing. She wanted me to have a 9 to 5 job. Fishing is demanding. It’s 24/7 living on a boat.”

    As Jeffrey talks on excitedly, it be- comes clear why he can’t give up on the sea. “Take the California cod. Some of the fish can live to be 250 years old. There are giant sea bass that are hundreds of years old. The Dover sole takes eight years to mature to spawn, and they travel in a ball of snot. They’re really slimy.”

    Jeffrey often takes people out to see these wonders, including students working on PhDs in biology who’ve seen little more than books and nothing of what he describes. Close to shore off Monterey, he shows them huge fish living in caves among the rocks, and sometimes looking like rocks themselves. “I took someone out in a kayak who’d never seen a fish as big as a ling cod,” he notes. “I could put my head inside its mouth.”

    And then there are the mysterious sights at night, he continues. “At night, everything glows out there. It’s luminescence—living light.”

    Despite all the nature programs on television, and the popularity of seafood restaurants, the public knows little about fishing, he says. “Even here, 95 to 99 percent of the people have no idea this bay is where squid comes from for their calamari dishes.”

    And while increasing numbers of tourists are choosing ocean cruises for vacations, the consequences are oil slicks, trash and dead marine life. “In international waters cruise ships pump sewage out and drop thousands of bags of trash. It makes me sick,” Jeffrey says, adding that many of those bags wind up in a giant pile of trash the size of Texas in the middle of the ocean. One sight he has never forgotten: “A turtle with a big piece of plastic hanging out of its mouth.”

    As time goes on, the homeless who listen to Jeffrey’s fish tales for hours at a time may come to know more about fish than most people. And although he’s no longer on a commercial vessel, these individuals have become Jeffrey’s crew, of sorts. “There are some very bright, good people here,” he says of those around him. “We just need to be civil to one another. I get people to try to get along.”

    To help with that, a rule has been established concerning cussing. “After 9 in the morning, you can’t cuss out another person,” Jeffrey says. “We started that yesterday.”

    When Jeffrey is ready to get back into commercial fishing, he’ll need to leave this area he’s grown to love. “I may go to the East coast and fish. I’ve never been there,” he says. And if the multinational corporations and energy industry haven’t destroyed the oceans by then, Jeffrey hopes to keep fishing until the day he dies.

    “I like the rush I get from fishing,” he says, smiling. “You’ve got to have it here, in your heart. You have to really love fish.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 28, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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