Eureka Waterfront Brightens Up
On the south end of the waterfront, near Eureka's biggest shopping mall and the string of fast-food joints that front on Highway 101, sits a big green warehouse. Inside, Ken Bates, owner of Cloudburst Fishing Company, is winding black, tarred twine onto a needle. He's rehanging a net for an anchovy fisherman. Part of the net is piled in the middle of the floor and another part is stretched end to end like a sagging tennis court net. It's a blustery Monday afternoon in February, and the shop rattles in the wind while eucalyptus leaves drop heavily onto the murky skylights.
Bates, 56, moved to Eureka from San Pedro in 1970. “My dad was a marine electrician technician, and my grandfather was a tuna fisherman,” he says. He has fished since he was 15, for herring, salmon, lobster, crab—whatever the season and his schedule call for. He's also built about 40 fishing boats and, now and then, made a net for himself or other fishermen. “I love what I do,” he says, adding that, of course, he ekes out a living, but that isn't why he combines fishing with craft. “A good fisherman needs to know how to build gear.”
Then he tells a joke: A fisherman's wife has just given birth to a boy after several hours of labor during which the fisherman had fretted noisily about losing valuable fishing time. The doctor says, “I can tell the boy's going to be a fisherman too.” “How can you tell that?” asks the fisherman. “Because he came out crying,” says the doctor. Fishermen, says Bates, “are always crying.”
It's just the nature of the business, he adds. But local fishermen—like fishermen everywhere—have had plenty to cry about. Over the past 30 years of the fishing industry's decline, Eureka's fleet lost the dominant place on the waterfront it had occupied for more than 100 years. Bates explains it this way: Native Americans fished these waters for thousands of years. The modern commercial fishing fleet got its start 150 years ago, when Eureka became a city, and it prospered as technology improved and fishermen were able to catch more and more fish. That created more demand from the public, and the fleet—like fleets everywhere—expanded. In the late 1970s, the fishing industry overall began to crash as overfishing led to a depletion in certain stocks. Subsequent imposition of regulations aimed at recovery put a further squeeze on commercial fishermen. As the fisheries and associated businesses shrank, the waterfront began to decay. Meanwhile, people began to see waterfronts as nice places to live, eat, and enjoy themselves. Eureka, like other cities, began to cast about for ways to diversify its shoreline and make it pay, leading the clout-deficient fishermen to fear they would be edged out of the harbor completely by a fleet of shiny new shops.
“Tourists, visitor-serving things, non-water-dependent uses right on the waterfront—all those things affect the fishing fleets,” Bates says. All it takes, he says, is for someone in one of those shops on a dandied-up waterfront, next to a “colorful” working fish dock, to catch a whiff from all that industry and exclaim, “God, the bait on those boats smells—let's get 'em outta here!” And the smaller the boats, the greater the effect. It puts them out of business.
“It's happened here in Eureka in the last 60 years,” he says. “It used to be from the foot of I Street to Washington Street was all fish plants, fish unloading spots, and fishing boats tied up. So, the fishing fleet—at first we used to fight with the City.” But now things are looking up, Bates says, because the City has finally worked the commercial fishing fleet prominently into its waterfront redevelopment plans.
“Now we have one of the most modern fish processing plants on the coast, and we have a great fuel dock, and we've got two relatively new marinas for yachts and fish boats,” says Bates. Best of all is the Fisherman's Terminal, “a city block's worth of water frontage” set aside at the foot of C Street as a fishermen's work area. It's under construction now, four yellow cranes already in place. It will include a pier and new dock, where fishermen can land their catches more easily, as well as work buildings, a fish market, and a café. Tourists and local residents will be welcome in this area—but they'll be on the fishermen's turf. If they just stroll up the waterfront, however, they'll find less-fishy amusements.
It took Bates 18 years as a board member of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association to convince the City to include the fleet in its plans. Others in the fleet worked at it, too, for even longer. In fact, Bates says, a fellow board member recently discovered in an old file a letter written in 1955 from the association to the City, asking for a dedicated waterfront workspace for commercial fishermen.
“The fishermen have always been there,” he says. “We were just forgotten.”
Of course, there are still many battles to be fought, for now there are many contenders for space on the waterfront. Big-time developers, preservationists and open space advocates, the Wiyot Tribe, and the tourism industry are all jostling to have a hand in the transformation. As the Eureka waterfront begins to assume its role as the centerpiece of an area renowned for its natural beauty, it also is reasserting its place as the economic hub of Humboldt County.
In the City's offices in downtown Eureka, senior planner Sidnie Olson says, “We are in an extremely exciting time right now. As a planner, I've worked for the City eight to nine years, and the entire time has been planning and permitting, planning and permitting. And now, within the next five years, we're going to see the physical changes happening.” She talks about the long haul it's been, getting all the renewal projects in line.
The City first focused on Old Town, a couple of streets in from the waterfront, which in the 1990s was a typical waterfront downtown area—fallen on post-industrial hard times and neglected. The City restored and renovated many of the old buildings, and now they house shops, art galleries, restaurants, and coffee houses. The ornate, green-toned old Carson family mansion, bought in 1950 by the private Ingomar Club, still looms at the north end, a winding, cozily landscaped city street leading you to its manicured grounds. Toward the south are several blocks of quaint, renovated old buildings. Beyond that lies the industrial section of town.
Old Town looks pretty, but at night it tends to have a deserted feeling. Once the waterfront is redone, however, planners envision a 24-hour town where people live, work, and play—which in turn will boost Old Town's viability.
At the moment, the waterfront's developable land is a mix of completed new projects, half-built projects, vacant lots littered with weeds, old railcars, abandoned foundations, and trash heaps. A list of what's under way and what Olson says is coming promises a startling difference. A boating safety center and boathouse are under construction, and plans call for a spruce-up of Halvorsen Park, site of the annual Blues on the Bay festival and other City-sponsored events. Part of the park may be set aside for the Eureka–Humboldt Bay Hostel and Sustainable Living Center proposed by the Center for Environmental Economic Development. Next to the City's Wharfinger Building and Eureka Public Marina, completed in late 1999 and used for public events and meetings, could be the Hampton Suites Inn. And then there's the emerging C Street Plaza, with another pedestrian boardwalk that will lead into the new Fisherman's Terminal.
“You close your eyes and imagine what it's going to look like, and I see beautiful developments springing up, and contributing to the community—a place our kids can stay and get jobs,” says Olson. “This is the frontier for us. This is our place to shine.”
Meanwhile, at the big green warehouse farther south, Ken Bates is getting ready to build a new fishing boat. The future is bright, and the Fisherman's Terminal was the key to that.
The trolling fleet is rebuilding its ranks—and the fishing is good, for the most part. “We have a really healthy winter crab fishery that never declined,” says Bates. “The shrimp fishery is considered viable, as are those for flatfish, oysters, and more. And, generally speaking, in most of coastal California we have a healthy salmon fishery—except for up here.” The number of salmon returning to the Klamath River has dropped so dramatically in the past three years that early this season officials were talking about a complete ban on ocean salmon fishing along the Oregon and California coast to protect the Klamath fish.
Across from Bates' workshop sits a tiny smokehouse that dates back to the 1930s. It looks like a kid's playhouse, its warped, rough brown planks capped by a peaked roof from which two rusted stovepipes curl like a steer's horns. Tacked to it is a faded hand-painted sign that says “salmon.” It's idle at the moment, but a couple used it in the not-too-distant past. It looks like it could easily be used again, and it's picturesque. It seems emblematic of Eureka's embrace of its rich fishing past as it looks ahead to the future. Perhaps it will be there forever.
This article is greatly abridged. For the full text, see the print edition of Coast & Ocean.
Heidi Walters is a staff writer for the North Coast Journal, a prize-winning weekly community newspaper in Humboldt County.