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Sunday, December 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shifting tide at Fishermen's Terminal

Seattle Times staff reporters

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On Jan. 11, 1914, a procession of fishing boats poured into Salmon Bay to celebrate the opening of Fishermen's Terminal. Brig. Gen. Hiram Chittenden, retired district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one of three original Port commissioners, christened the terminal by describing its lofty mission:

"To organize and solidify the scattered fishing industry of the Northwest, to provide a home for the extensive fishing fleet, to give such aid as the Port rightfully should give in protecting the fisherman in marketing his hard-earned products — this surely is an ambition worthy of the most earnest efforts of the Port Commission."

Surely in 1914. Not as surely in 2001. Venerable Fishermen's Terminal is suddenly vulnerable.

In the days before cranes loaded cargo containers and ferries carried commuters, fishermen ruled Seattle's waterfront. But the small fishing boats that have moored at Fishermen's Terminal the past 88 years may soon have new neighbors.

Port commissioners voted unanimously last week to allow pleasure boats to tie up there. After a final vote next month, sleek yachts with polished decks could share the terminal with hard-worked trollers strewn with fishing line.

Recreational-boat moorage is needed, Port commissioners say, to fill an ever-increasing number of slip vacancies and help balance the books. But the prospect of commingling with yachters on docks that have been places to work, not luxuriate, has fishermen declaring mutiny.

The revolution signals a milestone in Seattle history.

To B.J. Bullert, a documentary filmmaker whose latest project is about Fishermen's Terminal, the fight over moorage rights is a metaphor for economic changes in the city — a passage from a hands-on economy to a virtual one.

White-collar vs. blue-collar. Yachter vs. fisherman. New money vs. old salt.

"Over there, you have the quick millionaire from the dot-com world who has embraced the American dream of a good life by purchasing a lot of toys," Bullert said. "And over here, you have a community of fishers who are very aware that the activities in which they engage hark back centuries. We have a fundamental clash of values and of cultural styles."

Dwindling fishing fleet

In 1985, the Port of Seattle listed fish as Seattle's top export, supported by a healthy local industry. Small fishing boats filled every slip at the terminal. There was a waiting list to get in.

But as the North Pacific fishing fleet has shrunk, slip vacancies for small boats have increased steadily over the past decade, standing now at 31 percent. Numerous paint-chipped boats bear "for sale" signs.

Revenue from recreational-boat moorage would help pay for upgrades that fishermen and Port officials agree are sorely needed. But some fishermen consider the proposal a ploy to push them out and an insult to their way of life.

"Yachts are a monument to money," gill-netter Pete Knutson said. "To put a monument to money in the heart of a place for working people is a slap in the face."

Fishing remains a viable Seattle industry. According to a Port-commissioned study last year, Fishermen's Terminal accounts for 5,306 jobs and generates more than $161 million in revenue annually.

But statewide, the number of small-boaters has dwindled. In 1980, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife issued 1,926 small-boat salmon-fishing licenses for Puget Sound. The number is projected to be 286 next year.

If pleasure boats are permitted at Fishermen's Terminal, they would moor on a dock separate from the fishing fleet.

Port Commission President Clare Nordquist insists the local fishing industry remains a priority and any fishing boat that needs moorage would be able to displace a recreational boat.

"If there's an active fishing boat that needs a berth, they will have it," Nordquist said.

Fishermen distrust claims that the Port puts a priority on fishing because they have watched the Port pour tens of millions of dollars into attracting the cruise-ship industry to the Bell Street Pier, while three miles away, at Fisherman's Terminal, the circa-1940 docks badly need repair.

"Essentially what you've got is a structure of catastrophic collapse" at Fishermen's Terminal, Knutson said.

Even if pleasure boats are permitted, it's not certain owners would want to moor at the terminal. Recreational-boat owner Curt Firestone told Port commissioners that most boaters would not look kindly on the prospect of being pushed out in favor of a fishing boat.

"I would not sign a lease that has a 30-day cancellation," he said.

Family histories

Ninety years ago, Port commissioners envisioned the stretch of waterfront at Salmon Bay as a deep-sea cargo port. But an association of Norwegian immigrant fishermen in 1913 complained that private marina operators were gouging them on moorage fees. They threatened to move their boats — and the industry — unless the port built a place to dry-dock. A bond issue was floated, and voters approved it.

Generations later, Fishermen's Terminal is still a place where guys with names like "Old Don" and "Mitchie Boy" roam the docks. It's a place of cigarettes and dirty fingernails, undeniably masculine. And a place of family histories.

Gordon Strand, business manager of the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, grew up on the docks, helping his father on his boat during the summer. His father, Thomas Strand, is memorialized on a monument at the terminal to fishermen who died at sea.

Strand's grandfather, Chris Nelson, was a Norwegian immigrant who came to Ballard in 1888. His fishing vessel was the flagship of the parade that celebrated the christening of the terminal in 1914.

"I always felt overwhelmed at Fishermen's Terminal because those were all big guys," Strand said. "I had to always laugh because my dad was afraid to fly, but he would talk about storms out in the Bering Sea."

Earlier changes drew critics

This is not the first time the commission has faced criticism about change at Fishermen's Terminal. In 1988, the Port completed a $13 million project that replaced a longtime restaurant with a new one and added retail shops, office space and the memorial. The upgrade included a $6 million, 900-foot dock designed for factory trawlers capable of handling more fish than the entire small-boat fleet.

Critics feared the project would alter the rugged, individualist charm of Fishermen's Terminal. And indeed, the working-class character of the place changed. The terminal became more of an attraction to tourists who wanted to see what a greasy, grimy work boat actually looked like, said Emery Shrock, president of Captain's Nautical Supplies, which opened at Fishermen's Terminal in the 1940s and has since moved to 15th Avenue West.

"You could see the handwriting was on the wall," Shrock said.

Fishermen now fear that the terminal may go the way of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, where tourists buy doodads and working fishermen are reduced to props.

The fight between the fishermen and Port commissioners has made for great theater, said Bullert, whose film is underwritten by a grant from the museum. She recalls an old Norwegian fisherman who testified to commissioners that he felt as though they considered his kind lower class.

"The fishers have no tolerance for courtly society, and the Port of Seattle is courtly," she said. "Commissioners are used to a certain amount of deference and civil dialogue. But these guys are telling them what they think, straight out."

Trying to balance values

Knutson plans a voter initiative next fall that would preserve Fishermen's Terminal as a historical district, just as the Pike Place Market was saved in 1971.

City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, whose father, Victor, led the fight to preserve the market, sees some parallels. Both have a working-class orientation and faced growth pressures from years of Seattle upscaling.

"The market is a vestige of Seattle's past, and so is Fishermen's Terminal," the councilman said. "It's a unique asset because it is irreplaceable."

But Seattle historian David Buerge does not consider the terminal particularly iconic.

"The issue comes down to perverse sentimentality," Buerge said. "Fishermen's Terminal was an important part of Seattle because fishing was an important part of Seattle's economy. But that economy basically has been destroyed."

Bob Meng, owner of Consolidated Marine at Fishermen's Terminal, said the facility must diversify to survive. Although Meng started out servicing commercial and fishing boats, he noticed a decline in his business about five years ago. He began servicing recreational boats, too, because it was the only way to stay in business, he said.

"If we had to strictly depend on the fishing fleet, we'd be on our way down," Meng said.

To Bullert, the decision of Port commissioners — and perhaps voters eventually — is a value judgment, a balance between income from moorage fees and preservation of the city's heritage.

"Fishermen's Terminal has power as a hot-button because this issue reaches back into our cultural past," she said.

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293, or seskenazi@seattletimes.com.

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291, or fvinluan@seattletimes.com.

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