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Harbormaster resigns

By Susan Chambers,  February 19, 2007 World Link

Mike Gaul, deputy executive director of the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, right, listens to troller Jeff Reeves as they discuss impounding boats at the Charleston boat basin Friday. World Photo by Madeline Steege

CHARLESTON - The impounding of commercial fishing vessels by the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, particularly salmon trollers, has stopped.

But the fallout over the threat to impound the boats of some of the harbor's struggling salmon fishermen has not.

It was early last week when Harbormaster Don Yost was requested to sign a letter notifying a handful of boat owners that access to their vessels would be restricted and the boats would be impounded, Yost said.

But Yost found he couldn't sign those letters.

He turned in his resignation letter on Thursday, effective immediately.

“There's a face with every boat,” Yost said.

Oregon International Port of Coos Bay Communications Director Martin Callery said Yost delivered his letter to Executive Director Jeffrey Bishop in person and it had been accepted.

Until last week, most of the boats that had been impounded were vessels belonging to out-of-town owners or owners who were marginal fishermen. The next round of scheduled impounds was for vessels whose owners have been active fishermen and familiar faces around the harbor; fishermen who are quick to loan a tool or help to fellow fishermen.

The Port of Coos Bay points out that the boats scheduled for impounds were not on the deferred-moorage plan designed to aid trollers in 2006, when the salmon season was cut completely.

Yost countered that, even so, the owners on the impound list had past-due amounts higher than they should have for several months, before the deferral program went into effect nearly a year ago. At least one has a current balance near $4,000 in moorage fees and storage unit fees. Why wasn't something done sooner? Yost wanted to know.

“The port's missed the opportunity to head this off,” Yost said. “We let it fester until we have a full-blown infection.”

2005 impact

What some people forget, Rayburn “Punch” Guerin said over coffee at the Basin Café, was that 2005 was a salmon season disaster, too.

No, it was never formally declared a fishery failure by the government - despite the fishing industry's request to do so - but Charleston fishermen had their season gutted in 2005. The prime fishing months of June, July and August were off-limits to trolling for the same reason the season was closed entirely in 2006: to protect weak runs of Klamath River fall Chinook.

Trollers still are reeling from the 2005 season. A few of the boats that are capable of fishing for other species did pursue other opportunities. Some crabbed this year, but this year's crab season has also turned out to be less than stellar.

Some vessel owners took to stripping their boats of gear and equipment - just in case talking with the Port didn't work out and their boats ended up on chocks in the shipyard. Others were facing homelessness, since they live on their boats.

“That's their life,” Yost said.

Impounds postponed

Callery said Friday that in the wake of Yost's resignation, Deputy Executive Director Mike Gaul and Director of Finance and Administration Donna Nichols would oversee things in Charleston.

He also said the port “received calls from Salem” regarding the impound situation.

Gaul was in Charleston on Friday, trying to work out payment plans with boat owners so impoundment could be avoided. He was able to contact most of the owners on the list.

“We'll work with anybody,” he said.

Already, there has been some progress.

“The two boats that were impounded last week worked out payment plans,” Gaul said.

Callery said that three to five boats whose owners qualified for moorage deferment were getting close to receiving letters notifying them that their boats would be impounded. None of them made any attempt at paying their moorage fees, he said.

Many fishermen understood that moorage payments hinged on the industry receiving federal aid, not necessarily state money, troller Jeff Reeves said late Friday.

The minutes of the port meetings during which the moorage deferment program was discussed identify federal aid, too. Many trollers who received state aid, though, did pay their moorages, Callery said.

Seizing boats is not new.

“There have always been a few boats every year that get impounded,” Callery said.

Seizing a boat isn't the port's preferred option when trying to collect on fees owed.

“It adds to our liability,” Callery said, noting that once a boat is seized, the port is accountable for its safekeeping. “We don't want to do that.”

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