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Salmon ban takes toll in Fort Bragg

Way of life comes to halt as commercial, charter boats sit idle

FORT BRAGG -- Salmon is king here along the Mendocino coast, but the monarch has been dethroned, leaving all the king's men and women in this hardworking town fearing for their livelihoods in a way they never have before.

"As of now, I'm broke," says Randy Thornton in the cabin of his 50-foot boat, his face coppered by sun and wind. Overhead, salmon rods with brightly colored lures are racked, idled for the year.

Thornton's charter-fishing business has been killed by an unprecedented yearlong ban on salmon fishing -- commercial and sport.

"My dilemma is I have a boat and I have to make a living," says Thornton, 46 and father of two.

After 10 years of payments, he paid off the boat last year. This might have been the year he and his wife would buy a house, he says.

But state Department of Fish and Game officials recently voted to ban salmon fishing in state waters, which extend three miles from shore. Five days before, the Pacific Fishery Management Council had banned sal-mon fishing in the 200-mile-wide swath of federal waters off California and Oregon.

Federal and state biologists believe closing the season for virtually all the West Coast before it even revs up is the only way to boost the number of chinook salmon returning from ocean waters to spawn in the Sacramento River this fall.

Last year was the second- lowest spawning season on record along the Sacramento River and its tributaries. Just 90,000 chinook returned from the sea to complete their life cycle in the fresh water -- a 90 percent drop from five years earlier.

For those who hook their hopes on the popular pink-fleshed fish, the finality of the season is like a death knell for an already struggling way of life.

"Every day I'm not taking people out, I'm losing business," says Thornton, who would be taking out a boatload of anglers at least four times a week about now.

Charter guests fishing for salmon also might dip for crabs, but Thornton says he can't build a charter business around crabs alone.

And other fish and abalone don't have as strong a draw as salmon, he says.

Town's economy hit hard

Fishing and lumber put Fort Bragg on the map, but in the past few years, lumber mills have closed, pulling 500 jobs from this town of about 7,200. Fishing has been buffeted by increasing regulations and restrictions, say people like Thornton.

Like many of his fellow anglers, Thornton has sensed that something out there is diminishing salmon populations that used to roll in each year like a tidal wave. Though the salmon ban is just for this season, Thornton and others worry that it could be years before another season returns.

"It's a big ocean to predict what's out there," Thornton says.

Noyo Harbor is a natural harbor at the mouth of the Noyo River, where it opens to the Pacific south of downtown. Weathered docks filled with eclectic boats bob in turquoise water beneath a highway bridge.

Sportfishing for salmon generally runs from mid-February through early November, with the big months in summer.

Of the 1,400 commercial sal-mon permits issued by the state this year, about 100 went to fishermen in Fort Bragg. In recent years, the commercial season in Fort Bragg was delayed until August and September, forcing locals to chase the fish south, where the seasons were longer.

Before 1990, commercial fishing pumped as much as $12 million into the local economy, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Sport- fishing, which draws overnight guests, contributes about $2 million annually to the economy.

Stung by the loss of lumber and the declining fishing industry, the town is inching toward tourism and the service industry, counting on whale watchers, hikers and landlocked valley residents longing for sea views.

Market won't sell farmed fish

The fallout from the transition spreads beyond the fishermen in the harbor.

The Harvest Market, which almost overlooks Noyo Harbor, once filled its iced seafood cases with the catch from the harbor below. A slab of salmon in the case last week was wild, but from Alaska.

Out of solidarity for those who once supplied the store, the market won't resort to farmed sal-mon, says seafood manager Ken Armstrong.

"How do you bring in farmed fish and say to the fishermen, 'We don't care about you?' " he asks.

In a meeting room near the harbor, volunteers plan for the 37th annual "World's Largest Salmon Barbecue." It raises as much as $40,000 for salmon restoration.

Set for July 5, there will be salmon purchased from Alaska, along with civic pride. The sal-mon is wild, not farmed. "We'll sell tofu imitation first," says Jim Martin, of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Not far from Randy Thornton's Telestar Charters in Noyo Harbor, the Platt brothers, both commercial fishermen, dock their boats.

"Eighty percent of my income was salmon in 2005," says Ben Platt, the plain-spoken son of a fisherman. In tan Dickies pants and a plaid shirt, Platt scrambles onto his 42-foot boat with its telltale trolling poles like giant antennae rising from the deck.

Divorced and without health insurance, Platt, 46, says only diligent scrimping has given him a cushion for this season.

Once, when he broke his right forefinger on the boat, he balked at the $9,000 cost for treatment. The cost dropped to $4,000 by cutting out "extras" such as anesthesia.

"We make money in salmon fishing by putting in a lot of days," Platt says.

Years ago, he rejected a career painting film scenery in Los Angeles, returning to the ocean he loves.

"We're almost like a big family on the coast. These are my people," he says.

There is talk of financial aid.

Platt raises a hand in protest when the topic comes up.

"I don't want a handout," he says. "I just want to go back to work."

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              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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