Harvests of a Harbor Town

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 29

When three major timber companies Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific and Masonite all yanked up stakes and fled Northern California, they left behind the sprawling, scrofulous fuzz of logged-over timber land, debris-clogged streams, idle lumber mills, idle loggers and idle mill-workers. As well as fuming local environmentalists. The groups were highly pissed-off, though for somewhat varying reasons.

G-P also left behind the legacy of a polluted yet potentially precious swath real estate where its mill once stood, a site on ocean bluffs at the west side of Fort Bragg. After G-P’s departure, there followed a  period of intense remedial effort, with its outcome yet hanging in the balance. If that acreage can be successfully cleansed, then tastefully developed, Fort Bragg may yet find itself reborn as a coastal tourism garden spot, a refuge to rival the allure of Mendocino to the south.

At the Caito Fisheries dock, workers unload groundfish from the icy hold of the trawler.
One of the few commercial “drag” boats still working out of Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Another site, rich in history, local lore, and a chance for clever re-development is Noyo Harbor, the long estuary of the Noyo River. Here, on placid, dock-wreathed waters, Fort Bragg’s venerable commercial fishing industry seems to hang on by the fin-tips.

Smack-down of the Mosquito Fleet

When the Caitos — a San Francisco-based, Italian family — opened a fish-processing building on Noyo land they in 1975, a visitor could almost walk across the harbor on decks of boats tied up alongside one another during the vibrant months of salmon harvest. The working watercraft moored here numbered in the hundreds.

“Now, there’s probably only about 20 dedicated salmon boats that work out of Noyo,” Jim Caito told me. “Though a few guys from other ports come here once the season opens.”

Sunset fans color out over the entrance channel to Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle.
Sunset fans color out over the entrance channel to Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The big problem commercial anglers faced was how long it took northern waters to open in 2005. Their season had been cut back to almost nothing. Salmon trollers couldn’t fish near Point Arena until July 4, or waters around Fort Bragg until September. Spring and summer had been utterly taken away. The key cause: that epic kill of adult spawning salmon and juvenile salmon on the Klamath River in 2002. That had been due to Bush Administration water policies that levered the profits of upstream farm irrigators far above every other consideration.

This imperiled survival of the Klamath runs. Hundreds of thousands of salmon from other streams, like the Sacramento, were swimming offshore, but fishermen couldn’t chase them. They had to ensure enough Klamath River fish remained uncaught to offer a bare minimum of 35,000 spawners a chance to return to the Klamath.

The fate of salmon has always been a subject of great interest to me. Not simply because I love to eat them – which I do! But also because I believe – along with many Native American tribes – that when our shared land and sea no longer stay ecologically healthy enough to support robust salmon runs, then a hard time for humankind is also drawing nigh.

Plus, I greatly admire those hardy, sun-burnt, brine-wrinkled, citizen seamen who crew and skipper the Mosquito Fleet. Usually, on small salmon boats, the ship’s whole complement consists of two men: a cap’n and the “puller.” (Calling the assistant a puller goes back more than a century, when he a guy working the oars, while the skipper was an eminence who could claim ownership of a twelve-foot dory.)

In their heyday Mosquito Fleeters operated small, double-ended wooden vessels of the venerable Monterey type, powered by muttering small-bore diesels that at full throttle might possibly achieve a speed of six knots. Even hit seven or eight, but only in the face of an emergency, such as an approaching storm or a severe lack of beer. These little boats were adept at navigating near-shore waters and using infinitesimal coves for shelter. Where some skill at such maneuvers was demonstrated by the doghole schooners of old, these pups excelled.

However, limited supplies of fish-bin ice chips and fuel they could tote meant Mosquito Fleet voyages tended to only last a few days. Consequently, skippers were forced to be shrewd about when, where and how they pursued salmon. Tight pals in the Mosquito Fleet would tell each other about current hot catch zones using code words broadcast over highly customized CB radios they called their “Mickey-Mouse” network. For instance, extremely large salmon were dubbed “suitcases”; if they were so busy fishing that they had to run the boat on auto-pilot, then “Iron Mike” would be steering; and if they puffed away on high-potency marijuana buds before figuring out where to fish next, they were deploying the “secret weapon.”

The trollers were rough-and-tumble, independent souls, fiercely devoted to their way of life and the health of the fishery that sustained them. When I lived in Mendocino, I enjoyed walking down to the cove that nestled in a curve of the headlands to watch their cluster of white anchor lights sway in a gentle swell as the blue dark of nightfall thickened on the sea.

Northern California Coastal Fishing Harbor. Photo by D.A. Levy.
Northern California Coastal Fishing Harbor. Photo by D.A. Levy.

When these guys showed up at California political meetings or public hearings that had to do with the health of rivers, restoration of salmon, or any matters of that ilk, they always made their points with high passion coupled with an amazing amount of scientific expertise.

But in the early 2000’s, they just could not seem to make themselves heard in Washington, D.C.

During the 2002 election, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) posed for a photo op with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman as they yanked a wheel to run water back into irrigation canals serving Klamath Basin potato farmers. Shortly after, Indians along the lower Klamath were horrified by the “salmon holocaust” as 80,000 venerated adult salmon died in low, tepid, parasite-laden water, the mere trickle that had been released downstream. Uncountable juvenile, out-migrating salmon perished as well. Impacts of this event reverberated for years, and hit struggling ports like Noyo particularly hard in 2005, a year when those dead juveniles could have been finning around offshore as hefty, shimmering adults. The remaining North Coast salmon fishermen claimed an estimated $100 million loss for the 2005 season.

Urchin Fishermen Need to Show Spine

Across the harbor from the Caitos’ big, red fish processing building stands a big white building the Juntz brothers built for processing sea urchins. Bob Juntz, 47, seems like a pretty nice guy. He told us that if we needed another place to stay, we’d be welcome to haul our kayaks out on an old skid ramp on his property, then make camp next to an outdoor picnic table used for snacks and lunches by his employees. The reason he could offer that to us was that he didn’t have many employees eating out there anymore.

Bob Juntz is an Oakland native who went off to Oral Roberts University to earn a degree in New Testament theology. He was all set to be a preacher, but then veered off into work with an L.A.-area health food chain run by his college roomie. His younger brother Vernon and Bob sought local recreation by fishing with poles offshore. Then they realized learning scuba diving would enable them to hunt for fish, instead of waiting around for them to bite.

Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat

Sea urchins are unloaded from the fishing boat "Chilly Willy." Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Francisco Chronicle
Sea urchins are unloaded from the fishing boat “Chilly Willy.” Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Francisco Chronicle.

After they became accomplished undersea hunters, diver scuttlebutt clued the Juntz brothers in to money that could be made in the then-dawning sea urchin fishery. This had begun in Southern California in 1971, but seriously took off after 1981, when 25 million pounds of whole urchins were landed. Their spines and shells were unusable, of course. But a custardy substance within each urchin was literally golden. This orange-yellow goo was called roe; but it actually was the critters’ gonads, or sex organs. The Japanese called it “uni,” and they paid top dollar to have it flown fresh and chilled across the Pacific to roll up in their sushi.

Then warm water of the 1982-1983 El Nino period put the kibosh on the Southern California urchin fishery. All eyes — including those of the Juntz brothers — turned to Northern California. The fishery up here was miniscule in the 1970s, but hit 1.9 million pounds of landings in 1985 and ballooned to 30.5 million pounds by 1988. The gold rush was on, and the Juntz boys were smack in the middle of it. They arrived in Noyo in 1984 with a 22-foot fiberglass boat, and began to dive on “blackout reefs” so thick with urchin you had to be careful where you touched the bottom.

They swiftly upgraded to a 34-foot boat, but lost it when an allegedly drunken pilot wrecked her on the Point Cabrillo reef. They then decided they’d do best if they quit diving personally, to concentrate on processing and wholesaling.

“We were in the right place at the right time to turn it into a huge business,” Bob Juntz recalls. “Demand for our product was just starting to peak, and we were pouncing on a virgin resource.”

Otters dine on sea urchins along California's coast.
Otters dine on sea urchins along California’s coast.

Their divers brought in up to 30,000 pounds per day. The Juntzes did well enough to buy a processing building right on the Point Arena waterfront in 1987, then the old Grader Fish Co. buildings on the north shore of Noyo in 1991. When the Grader facility burned down ten years later, they rolled with the punch. They trucked their employees down to their Point Arena unit, while they rebuilt in Fort Bragg with a big, new, white plant.

However,  nearly a decade later, a bunch of air has whistled out of the urchin economic balloon. The Japanese appetite for uni has fallen. What remains is being fed by a new supply from coastal Russia. Kelp forests, which supply urchins with food, have declined near Fort Bragg. New regulations keep the boats tied up more days per week. Many urchin boats have sailed back down south, where conditions are easier and stocks have improved.

Now the gleaming equipment sits idle more often than not. Juntz turns it all on just a few days a week, then processes half or less the roe he did back in the urchin heyday.

“It’s bad if your floor stays dry in a fish plant,” Bob Juntz jokes. “Don’t really want to see that.”

He pins some hope on a rise in domestic demand for uni, and a shift in Fish and Game regulations that could allow Northern California dive boats to voyage out more often if weather is good. But he’s also negotiating with the local Fish and Game personnel to lease his building and use it for their offices. Meanwhile, he keeps his morale and spirits up returning to his New Testament roots and attending services at the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Trawling Can Be a Drag

Across the harbor, Jim Caito sees his floor get wet a bit more often.

“We didn’t participate in the urchin boom,” Caito says. “Didn’t know much about it. We decided to stay with what we knew, work on crab and salmon and ground fish. That’s been shown to be a smart decision.”

Their Noyo operation is run by Jim, together with brothers Joe, John and sister Jenette. This particular set of Caitos has never owned any vessels themselves. Their living is made by processing a haul from 20 local groundfish trawlers, as well as about 35 crab boats and the 35 salmon trollers or so that remain in the harbor’s Mosquito Fleet.

Such diversification, Jim Caito says, “Is all that keeps us going.”

A small but steady, year-round flow of groundfish makes it possible for him to keep a processing crew on the floor all year. Then in winter, he ramps up to handle the harvest of male Dungeness crab. And generally, that season blends into the commercial salmon season — though there was a large-ish gap this year.

“Groundfish keep us alive. We usually make money off of crab. And if there’s a good salmon season, well, then we enjoy a great year,” Caito says.

A crewman sorts through the catch on a trawler in Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
A crewman sorts through the catch on a trawler in Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

However, overall decline of this commercial port still has him worried. Support businesses, like Noyo’s ice plant and fuel dock, are either on the block or threatening to shut down. Should that happen, the Caitos will need to get creative, like using their delivery van to bring block ice up from Modesto, crush it and then blow it into the holds of their client boats so the catch can be iced. Or coax fuel trucks down to the docks to gas up an array of boats simultaneously.

Another concern is the supply of fit, feisty and determined fishermen.

“People who run these boats, they’re an aging population,” Caito says. “Don’t see many young people get into the business. Look at the cost of operations and permits, hard and sometimes risky work, as well as uncertain harvests, and you can see why. But after these old-timers go, who will keep the fishing happening?”

Independent adventurers, prowling the open sea to take a living directly from the wild may be American archetypes, but they’re also an endangered species.

And current national policies, ranging from that water fiasco on the Klamath, to attempts to count hatchery fish the same as wild salmon, to the Bush administration’s recent announcement of support for a massive rise in industrial fish farming, can seem like a concerted effort to drive the last of these independent commercial fishermen into oblivion.

However, “I’m an optimist by nature,” Caito says. “Sure, we can only catch what’s out there. But everything goes in cycles. When conditions improve, then our catch can go up. As long as regulations keep pace.”

“Groundfish do seem to be coming back now,” says Juntz. “If can they fix it for salmon on the Klamath, that will go quite a way to helping things out here in Fort Bragg. The big key for any operator is to keep your debt and overhead low, put your head down, then try to get through. It’s a matter of how long you can hang on.”

Skipper of the Storm Bringer

Similar points are made by Carroll Johnson, 53, skipper of the Storm Bringer. He invited us aboard his 56-foot, steel-hulled trawler, or “drag boat.” Johnson has fished since he was 9, when his dad taught him. He bought his first vessel at age 19.

Skipper Carroll Johnson says there can be a “real glory” to the fishing life. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Skipper Carroll Johnson says there can be a “real glory” to the fishing life. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Johnson concedes “the ocean got hurt” in the 1980s, when government policies put too many trawlers on the water. A policy reversal, which cut the force of 90 trawlers on the West Coast by a third with a buyout, reduced the pressure, and conservation zones helped species rebound.

“I took that buyout. After a year, I had to buy back in,” Johnson said. “Discovered I’d taken this life for granted. Missed having a boat to check on. I love the freedom and beauty of this coast. I like to drift with the nets when the wind blows. Never had a boss over me. Now I know I can’t have one.”

“Fishing restrictions worked,” Johnson says. “Give Ma Nature half a chance, and she’ll produce. Our level of fish now is awesome. The ocean is rich. We’re coming off two of the best crab seasons ever.”

He also says, “We do need to get young guys involved. College of the Redwoods should offer a class. Skippers should be more willing to give greenhorn kids a chance. If all a kid hears is ‘no’ around the docks, he’ll give up.

“Wives don’t like this life much. It can be hard. But there’s a real glory to it.”