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Straining Water

Why the local beach fishing industry has shrunk to smelt-sized proportions

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On a recent Sunday evening, Mike Zamboni's old Toyota truck grumbles noisily down the pot-holed dirt road that winds through Redwoods State Park out to Gold Bluffs Beach, north of Orick.

With the sun setting, Zamboni jumps out of his truck, engages the 4-wheel drive and unlocks the contentious gate that allows a handful of commercial fishermen access to the beach's plentiful smelt. Zamboni tells me that smelt caught commercially — which for the most part end up in Asian markets or as feed for aquariums — come from three places in the United States: the Great Lakes, the Columbia River and right here.

Zamboni is dressed for work: a pair of dusty sweat pants, a fleece jacket and a baseball cap he wears high on his head so that his bangs poke out. As his truck skates back and forth across the soft sand, he explains over the roaring engine that he's a little tired. The weather has been good recently, which means that over the past two days Zamboni has spent a total of 24 hours on his crab boat. He started crabbing at 5 o'clock this morning. Now it's almost 8 p.m. and he's on the beach looking for smelt. I glance over and catch Zamboni's sharp profile silhouetted against the glow of the spotlight he's shining out into the surf, searching for smelt. The fish run best when the tide is outgoing. If they're there, we'll see a thousand points of silver light shine back at us. "When they're actually running, there'll be 10,000 running on the beach there," he shouts. On a good night, fishermen can dip their nets into the water and snag a hundred pounds of smelt in one fell swoop.

The 40-year-old Zamboni, who has a wildlife and fisheries science degree from Humboldt State University, is an unlikely champion of local fishermen. When he was in college, he wanted to work for the Department of Fish and Game; now he and his fellow fishermen are at loggerheads with that agency, and state and national parks as well.

If Redwood National and State Parks had their way, they'd phase out beach fishing all together, but a 2006 wilderness bill sponsored by Congressmen Mike Thompson ensures that there will be a handful of beach fishing permits in perpetuity. It's been left up to the parks to regulate those permits, which has created a certain level of unconstructive tension between the guys who make their livelihood out on these rough shores and the agency with a mandate to protect the natural resource here.

"I wish there were a better working relationship between the industry and [Fish and Game and the parks]," Zamboni says.

Jeff Bomke, Acting Superintendent for the Redwood Coast Sector of the North Coast Redwoods District, admits that the park would rather close access to Gold Bluffs beach altogether, but because federal legislation protects beach fishermen, that's no longer an option. Still, Bomke says he wouldn't describe the relationship between his agency and the fishermen as tense. "We are in the business of protecting resources," he explained last week from his office. "From our perspective it's not tense, it's our job."

Zamboni remembers how different things were back in the '90s when there were fewer regulations and the fish were particularly plentiful. "You could just fill your truck pretty much seven days a week," he recalls. "Every night you'd leave and there would still be fish running. There were 70 trucks on the beach here fishing and you'd line up bumper to bumper and everybody'd fill up a truck." Now Zamboni describes beach fishermen — and North Coast fishermen in general — as having been "regulated into recession."

Just recently, according to Zamboni, the parks told beach fishermen that they were only allowed to drive out onto the beach with one other commercial fisherman in their truck. That's made things difficult for Zamboni because he used to bring out a deck hand from his crab boat to help haul in the smelt, or his girlfriend to keep him awake in the late at night when the fish are running strong. "We've just become the only business in California that only allows one employee," he jokes.

But this is no joking matter. We drive up the beach and meet up with another fisherman, Gene Logan, who lives in Orick. He's out here with his two sons — the future faces of commercial beach fishing at Gold Bluffs. The two young boys run into the surf with their waders on to catch some day fish (slightly fatter and longer than the night fish) to show me. Unfortunately, the fish aren't spawning tonight, but the boys are enthusiastic nonetheless.

When Logan isn't smelting, he's trolling for salmon. However, the closure of the salmon season this year means that he'll only have one source of income, and it's right here on the beach in the form of fickle shocks of silver that only run when the water temperature is just right (somewhere between 54 and 58 degrees, Zamboni says). When they're running, Logan says he can make about $1,000 a night. (Pacific Choice Seafood Co. in Eureka pays 35 cents a pound for smelt.) Between May and July last year, Logan caught 99,000 pounds of smelt. The most he ever delivered was 150,000 pounds in the early '90s. To his sons, who look at him with wonder and admiration, that number seems unfathomably large.

"I would definitely like for one of my boys to get my permit when I'm too old to come out here," Logan says. But that's not a sure thing. "It went from being my permit to — now that legislation got passed — the park system says that they own those permits, and they're going to do whatever they want with [them]."

Jeff Bomke said it's true the parks can't ensure that one of Logan's sons will get a beach fishing permit for Gold Bluffs, but they "will have an advantage over most," he said. "If they're putting forth the effort and they're meeting the requirements, there is no hindrance to them perpetuating that lifestyle."

Still, Logan wants assurances. Fishing is in his blood. His father fished this beach, and he remembers his mom bringing him out here as a toddler. Nowadays, when he and his sons aren't on the beach fishing for a living, more likely than not, they're floating down a river somewhere sport fishing for salmon or trout.

Ultimately, Logan is worried that restricting access to beach fishermen will be the death knell for recreational and commercial access to natural resources in America in general.

"The only way you're going to be able to even know anything about what this country is all about is through an interpretive node," he says. "Pretty soon they're going to have it so that it has a screen so that you can push a button and show you pictures of waves rolling in and out and a tree blowing in the wind, and then you can go back in the old days and show a guy out there catching surf fish or an Indian pulling a fish out of a net."

And Zamboni worries that ever-tightening restrictions on domestic fishermen will increase demand for fish from foreign markets, where fish are being harvested less sustainably and often from more polluted waters, he argues.

In the distance Logan and Zamboni notice two trucks turn off their lights. That could mean they've spotted fish. We pile into the trucks and drive up to check on the situation, but the fish seem to be spread out tonight. The fishermen are just "straining water," Logan says. It's not worth his while to catch 100 pounds of smelt because it'll cost him more to haul them to Eureka in fuel than they're worth.

Logan and Zamboni decide to call it a night. "We were supposed to fill a truck [with smelt] for you to take a picture of," Zamboni laments as we drive up the beach back to the gate. "Now everyone is going to think they're extinct."

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