Long before the first refugees from the city planted cannabis seeds in the hills of Southern Humboldt, fishermen braved the seas in summer and winter to bring back crab, salmon, rockfish, lingcod and a variety of other seafood.
It was always considered a reliable — if dangerous — way to make a living.
Things have changed. A hodgepodge of rising costs, shrinking fish stocks, impossible bureaucratic requirements and crumbling on-shore infrastructure is gradually driving people out of Humboldt's oldest occupation.
On Oct. 5, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman held a public meeting in Arcata to discuss updating the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal legislation that governs ocean fishing.
Huffman brought together a roundtable of regional and local officials, a Humboldt State University professor and a few representatives of the local fishing industry to offer feedback on the failings — and successes — of the MSA. Later in the meeting, he also took comments from the 35 or so members of the general public attending the meeting at the D Street Community Center.
Aside from some initial remarks, Huffman did not say much, noting that he was there to listen and gather feedback from the community. He will hold similar meetings on a "listening tour" of fishing communities all over the country in his role as chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife.
The MSA was first passed in 1976 at a time when many fishing stocks were crashing. It set up a 200-mile boundary around the U.S. coastline that was largely off limits to foreign ships and set limits on the amounts of fish of any type that could be caught in U.S. waters. It has been re-authorized and re-written in the decades since it passed.
The MSA is regulated by eight regional councils, which are tasked with protecting essential fish habitats, managing fish stocks and designating the places where and times when various types of fish can be caught. The councils also license fishing boats and regulate the types of gear that can be used.
Members of the Oct. 5 roundtable discussed the problems that had come to their attention.
"Salmon is the lifeblood of fishing communities all up and down the coast," said Mark Gorelnik, vice chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which supervises fishing in California's oceans, adding that four of the salmon stocks — two kinds each of Coho and chinook — have been declared overfished, which means they cannot be harvested. "They're not overfished because too many fish are taken out of the ocean. They're overfished because inland habitat — specifically water flow — has caused their numbers to fall. Juveniles are not surviving. They're not migrating. And the councils have no power to do anything about it."
This theme was repeated again and again over the course of the next two hours. The problem, panelists said, is that while federal law protects the salmon while they are in the ocean, it has no power over inland rivers, where juvenile fish hatch and grow to maturity. Dams run by a different federal agency that has no mandate for fish conservation cut off water from the rivers, leaving them vulnerable to algae and overheating. Young fish die in the overheated waters and are vulnerable to the parasites and disease germs that flourish in warmer water.
"We've been experiencing a fisheries disaster in the Klamath basin since 2015," said Yurok Tribal Fisheries Director Dave Hillemeier.
The Yurok Tribe's roughly 6,000 members rely heavily upon salmon for food, Hillemeier said.
"This year, we harvested around 3,000 fish and the harvest season is now over," he said, adding that things were even worse in 2017, when the tribe was allocated approximately one fish for every 10 tribal members.
To counteract the lethally warm water, Hillemeier would like to see "thermal refugia" — areas where cold water creeks enter the river — protected from fishing. That way, he said, the juvenile fish could congregate there during the days and continue downriver at night when the temperature drops to find another refugia as daybreak approaches.
Many other problems were discussed over the next few hours. One of them is that federal agencies are slow to respond when fisheries recover, so even after the numbers of a given stock have gone back to normal level, fishermen remain forbidden from harvesting them.
The cost of entering the business is another issue. Permits to catch various types of fish must be purchased and the costs are high enough — up to a $500,000 — to keep new people from entering the fishing industry. As a result, fishing fleets are "graying" because young people who want to fish cannot afford a license. This process favors large vessels over small ones.
Data collection, which is required by the MSA, is another issue. Each vessel is required to have an observer on board, which can either be an electronic system of data gathering or an actual human being who fills out paper logbooks. But human observers are expensive, the technology has compatibility issues and the federal agencies do not always keep up their part of the systems.
"Electronic monitoring was supposed to be the solution," said Gorelnik. "But it turned out to be even more expensive than humans."
Another problem with permits is that, because of climate change, different species of fish are moving around the ocean, going to areas where they have never been seen before.
"You can have a real problem if you have a limited entry permit and then the fish go somewhere else" because the permits are tied to specific fishing regions, observed Dave Bitts, the outgoing president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations.
Wayne Heikkila, of the Redding-based Western Fishboat Owners Association, said his organization has represented albacore tuna fishermen on the west coast since 1967. The albacore stock is down about 30 percent due to changing ocean conditions such as the "blob," an area of unusually warm ocean water off the Pacific Coast, he said. Moreover, he added, not all nations are honoring international treaties that limit the amount of catch, with China being a particularly egregious offender.
The loss of the local crab season — and the economic devastation that resulted from it — was brought up by Dennis Mayo, a local fisherman and board member of the McKinleyville Community Services District who spoke during the public comment period. Huffman explained that crab fishing is regulated by the state and the MSA could not address the issue.
Mayo responded that a new crab fishermen's association had been founded, which would cover all ports from Morro Bay north to Crescent City.
The possibility of self-insurance, similar to farmer's crop insurance to help pay for fishing disasters, was also discussed.
The North Coast Journal asked Gorelnik the opinion of the Pacific Fishery Management Council on offshore wind farms, which have the potential of shutting down large areas of the coast to fishing. Gorelnik said that although his agency does not deal with that — it's under the supervision of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — it had sent a letter to the BOEM to express concerns about the negative impacts the wind farms would have on the commercial fishing fleet.
The Journal asked Huffman if the Trump administration's refusal to recognize climate science was affecting the governance of the fisheries, and how the re-introduction of the MSA would affect that.
"This affects all agencies," Huffman said. "They're trying to kill climate science. It affects the fisheries because the federal agency that manages fisheries, NOAA, has essentially gotten an order from the highest level political appointees to stop talking about climate change, to stop researching climate change and to purge their agency of any commitment to climate change."
He added, "Any time you have legislation on the books that specifically requires climate planning, climate adaptation, climate science, all of which potentially could be in a MSA re-authorization, that bolsters the case that these agencies can't just walk away from the issue. Even if some political person comes along and tells them to."
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist. She prefers she/her pronouns and tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.