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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
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Sierra Magazine
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Profile: Bold Man and the Sea
To help fishermen, he fights for fish.
by Bill Donahue

(page 2 of 2)

Zeke Grader (left) gets an on-the-water perspective from independent commercial fishers Larry Cullins and Barbara Emley.
So much has changed since Grader was a kid. Over 7,000 dams have been built on western rivers in the past 50 years. Desert cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix have mushroomed, requiring water that is piped in from rivers once abundant with fish. Meanwhile the forests lining many rivers have been logged, robbing salmon of shade and hence the cold water they need for spawning. And pesticides are poisoning fish. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study of water samples collected in California's San Joaquin Valley revealed that two common insect-killers, diazinon and chlorpyrifos, were present in concentrations more than ten times limits now being proposed by the state.

More than half the runs of Pacific salmon are now either endangered or threatened, and agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service have responded by shortening fishing seasons and closing ports. While there were 5,700 licensed salmon boats in California in 1983, there are currently fewer than 1,000. The average fisherman in California is 56 years old.

And we're now entering a new chapter in natural history: Call it the Frankenfish era. Americans' consumption of farmed fish-that is, fish raised in floating pens close to the ocean shore-has been spiraling upward over the past decade. Farmed fish are rife with antibiotics and parasites, and also resource-intensive: A 10-pound salmon will eat 30 to 40 pounds of smaller fish-herring or anchovies, say-as it fattens in its pen. Or it may escape into the wild.

Already, according to the Canadian government, over 400,000 Atlantic salmon have thrashed their way into the streams of British Columbia, stealing habitat from native fish and possibly transporting the diseases that abound on the farms. Along with many others, Grader believes that these pest fish are now spawning in Canada.

None of these problems are evident at the supermarket, though. Farmed salmon is pretty and tasty-looking, sitting there on ice. It sells, and thus many policymakers are now downplaying the importance of wild fish. In May, for instance, the NMFS shifted the way it decides which salmon need protection under the Endangered Species Act: It will now count fish raised in hatcheries as bona fide wild salmon.

"That reflects tremendous arrogance," Grader told me one Sunday afternoon, as we rode in the minivan down the California coast to a fishermen's picnic in Santa Cruz. "They're playing God with these rivers." Hatchery fish, he explained, lack genetic diversity, and many hatchery managers try to intermingle their fish with wild ones to avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding-genetic mutation and susceptibility to disease. "If you can't bring in fresh genes," Grader said, "even the hatchery fish are in trouble."

Grader wants consumers to know about threats to genetic integrity. To this end, he has long pushed for legislation that would require food vendors to label their fish either "wild" or "farmed." Fish labeling at last became mandatory nationwide this September, with the enactment of the 2002 farm bill.

Still, challenges to wild fish keep emerging. Ten miles off Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, the San Diego-based Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute is now poised to open the nation's first major offshore aquaculture operation. Hubbs is setting its net pens on a decommissioned oil platform. The pens pose the same risk as shore-hugging farms, which often dump untreated sewage and spread diseases such as furunculosis, a killer of wild fish. They're also miles removed from population centers and public scrutiny-and they could soon proliferate. Other fish-farm entrepreneurs are now jockeying to dot areas off the coast of Hawaii, Alabama, New Hampshire, and other states.

And an offshore-aquaculture bill, essentially an industry green light, is under way in Congress. Oil companies such as ChevronTexaco and BP, which sponsor Hubbs, are of course supportive. Currently, they're obliged to remove spent oil rigs and to clean up the toxics they've left-the mercury remaining in the drill muds, for instance. Now they may be absolved of these tasks, which together cost them up to $30 million per rig.

"It's ridiculous," Grader said as he pulled up to a coffeehouse and began walking toward the door. "These rigs have preempted good fishing, and now the oil companies are saying, 'Wait, let us leave the rigs there; these rigs can help everyone.' I don't believe them."

Zeke Grader got his politics from his dad. When Bill Grader wasn't running his fish plant, he was defending fish habitat. In 1956, he helped found California's Salmon Unlimited, a group aimed at keeping fish numbers up in the new age of dams. Zeke remembers going to the meetings and sitting with a comic book, amid a haze of cigar smoke. Later, Grader worked for his parents, overseeing the crews that unloaded fishing boats.

"All my father and I ever talked about was politics and fish," Grader said at the cafe. "He always told me to stay focused on the resource. He said, 'Don't get caught up in the fighting between, say, sports and commercial fishermen. If you take care of the resource, it will take care of everybody.' The key thing is to win: Find your allies."

Usually for Grader the best allies are powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The only greens that he shuns are those who insist that, by harvesting any fish at all, we imperil a dwindling resource.

"That's knee-jerk," he said. "Fish have had an economic value to people since time immemorial. When you're fighting for habitat, your hand is a lot stronger if you can point down into the water and say, 'Those fish mean money for thousands of working families.'" It's even better if you can sell fish locally. Recently, Grader set up a program that helps fishermen sell their catch at the docks and at farmers' markets. He has also convinced several top-end San Francisco restaurants to put wild local fish on their menus.

In an ideal future, Grader believes, all natural-resource industries could be both green and profitable. "We know there's a sustainable model for farming," he mused. "Organic. And the same principles could work for ranching, if we didn't stuff cattle onto feedlots and give them corn and animal parts to eat. Why don't we let them eat grass, as they have for thousands of years? Sustainable logging-that's harder. You need to have big landholdings to log, and then you have shareholders concerned with quarterly dividends, and..."

Grader killed the last of his coffee, eventually, and then we drove off toward the picnic site. There were, it turned out, about ten large picnic parties in Santa Cruz's Harvey West Park, and for a while we just drove around, searching. Then Grader's face lit with a smile. "There it is," he said with relish. "I see a lot of guys with big trucks."

Soon he was surrounded by friends, cackling away as he fished a cold Bud from a cooler. I milled through the crowd too and, again, heard some criticism. "Zeke," said fisherman Del Crawford, "just uses our organization to forward his environmental platform." "Zeke needs to pay more attention to the fears of his members," said another fisherman. "When they say they're afraid that environmental regulations will force them out of the industry, he should listen to them."

On the ride home, I asked Grader about the comments. Wearily, he responded, "I keep reminding them that if they don't take care of the resource, we ain't gonna be fishing. And they keep arguing with me. That's the way it is-fishermen are cantankerous."

Back in San Francisco, I ate dinner with Grader and his wife, Lois Prentice, also an attorney. Prentice told a story about some fishermen who got angry at Grader back in the '70s. "They found out where I worked," she said, "and one night they came by and dropped a load of dead herring inside the office-right on the carpet. My secretary had just seen one of the Godfather movies. She was almost hysterical; she thought we were going to sleep with the fishes. But I just laughed. It didn't intimidate Zeke or me."

The morning after our dinner, Grader awoke at 4 a.m. He ate a can of wild salmon for breakfast and went running by the bay with his dog, Scarlett. He burrowed in at his office, in an old Coast Guard barracks in San Francisco's Presidio park, and wrote a letter in favor of passage of a federal oceans act. Such legislation is now a goal of both the Sierra Club and the Ocean Conservancy. Somewhat like the Clean Water Act, it would regulate all ocean activity and would, for instance, force the Army Corps of Engineers to prove that dumping its dredge spoils into the ocean does not hurt fish.

A few days later Grader and I finally made it down to the water. It was a warm and sparkling morning, and the tacky little tourist shops in Ghirardelli Square, near Fisherman's Wharf, seemed particularly carefree and happy. A block down the hill, fishermen were repairing their boats. I remembered how proud Grader had been earlier, talking about the bay. "People look down out of skyscrapers," he'd said, "and they see a commercial fishing operation going on in San Francisco Bay, and it reminds them that these estuaries are not just dumping grounds and places to sail. They're important habitat. Fish live here."

Grader and I walked along the dock now. He was dressed for the office, wearing a crisp button-down shirt, and did not have much time. But when we ran into a guy he knew, he leaned against a post to idly chat about fish prices. At the far end of the dock, a boat was unloading fish as seagulls circled above, squawking. "Swordfish," Grader said with satisfaction.

A car alarm went off far away on the street. Back at the office, Grader's allies would soon call to muse darkly about what the Bush administration would do to scuttle the oceans act. Grader kept watching the fish. They were long and silver and they shimmered as they were unloaded. The air smelled of fish. The seagulls were going crazy. It was a raucous and splendid spectacle and Zeke Grader hoped, of course, that it would go on repeating itself for centuries.


BILL DONAHUE also writes for Mother Jones and Outside magazines. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Photographs coutesy J. Michael Tucker.

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