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Phil Kline

Kevin Fox

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Phil Kline on Capitol stepsIT WAS A CRISP morning in November and Phil Kline, fisherman, stood on the deck of his boat, Cluny, tied up at the Marina, busily plucking from the hooks of a long line bits of masticated sardine bait from yesterday's outing, and coiling up the line inside a rickety old washtub to get ready for the next day's fishing. It looked very much a tedious and slimy task, but of course he was dressed for the occasion faded jeans, frayed shirt, loose-fitting jacket and a jaunty little fishing cap.

On other days, however, Kline will don what he calls his "lawyer disguise" dark suit, white shirt and tie. That's when he's off to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., or perhaps the legislative chambers of Sacramento to lobby for the fisherman's cause.

"Watching all the fish go away is breaking my heart," he said, talking as steadily as he worked. "I've been actively campaigning at all levels of management state, federal and local for changes in the rules and regulations that will protect the fish enough that there'll be a future for someone else on the planet."

Sounds reasonable, but getting it done is not as easy as one might think.

"We got the language in the law that was signed by President Clinton in October of 1996 that really would work well and produce sustainable fisheries. But it would mean some major changes in business as usual, and trying to get that law implemented meaningfully has proved to be a very daunting task."

Not surprisingly, politics had raised its ugly head.

"The politics tends to override the biology a lot of times," Kline observes, "and the politics is driven by the economics of the situation. So there's a gang of people that are making a bunch of money (who) are not going to want to change the system."

The original Magnuson Act (named for Washington state Sen. Warren Magnuson) established the nation's regional fishery management councils, under the administration of the Commerce Department, and set the stage to "kick out the foreign vessels the Russians, the Poles, the Chinese and all the rest of them," as Kline puts it under the 200-mile limit. But with an unforeseen consequence.

"Not only did we displace the foreign vessels," Kline explains, "but we built more fish-catching capacity in American hulls than we ever had, and it's a lot harder to kick out your own people than foreigners."

The Magnuson Act, Kline notes, was also a response to "quite a nationwide movement to change the whole focus of the law from one of exploitive extraction to one of trying to get our fisheries on a sustainable course." ("Sustainable fisheries" is a phrase that crops up frequently in Kline's converse.)

So Kline found himself making four or five trips to the nation's capital to lobby for what he sees as the necessary language in the law: "Don't overfish, protect the habitat, don't allow things to destroy the habitat, whether it be fishing or dredging or oil drilling, whatever." It has been a kind of missionary endeavor educating the pagans.

"I just took it upon myself," he says, "because I felt I needed to give something back after having made a decent living for a couple of decades doing nothing but harvesting."

And to think this was once a young man who until he came to Humboldt County in the early 1970s didn't know that people caught fish for money! (Having grown up in Palo Alto, he was, however, an avid sport fisherman.)

"It never really crossed my mind," he says. But one day he was hitchhiking home to McKinleyville from Humboldt State University, "and this guy picked me up and he had this dory behind his truck, and I asked what all that crap was in back, and he said, `Oh, that's what I use to commercially fish for salmon.' And I go, `You can sell `em?'" Kline laughs.

Kline at helm of boatHe was hooked. He teamed up for one year with another student in HSU's fisheries department and bought a little skiff to go salmon fishing in the summer, then went on his own. "And I've been fishing ever since," he said.

He has long since switched over to ground fish, which live near the bottom of the ocean rock fish, ling cod, black cod, sole as opposed to pelagic fish salmon, tuna and mackerel, for instance.

"The salmon declines," he notes, "are pretty well documented, because of habitat destruction and water policies, but the ground fish declines are (due to) strictly over-fishing and stupid rules that force people to throw over the side fish that are perfectly good dead."

Kline is tossing overboard yesterday's decimated sardine bait, which of course attracts a bunch of ravenous and screaming seagulls. At one point, he shouts back at them: "Hey, quiet!" and they obey, more or less.

One earlier observation program found that 40 percent of everything caught in the nets of trawlers was thrown back over the side dead.

"The trawlers are only doing what's legal," Kline says. "But when you talk about maybe having smaller nets or sensitive areas closed to fishing to protect the habitat, you come up against instant total resistance. `No, we don't want to change anything; that'll only make it worse.' But if we don't make some changes pretty darn soon, there won't be a ground fish industry left on the West Coast."

Kline now fishes for the black cod living 200 fathoms down on the bottom of the big canyon off the mouth of the Eel River. Black cod bring high dollar per pound when exported to Japan, "but not as high this year as last," Kline adds, "because of the Japanese economy."

When he first went after the black cod, in the late 1970s-early 1980s, Kline's was one of only a couple boats fishing them, and he could fish year-round with no haul limits. But today the limit is 300 pounds a day and just four days a month.

Several weekends ago, Kline was in Seattle at a gathering of conservation-minded fishermen, and he remembers getting into a conversation with some New England fishermen.

"Those guys," he relates, "were whining pretty severely that we just didn't understand the economic consequences of the downturn in their fisheries." Then he learns that their cod is similar to the black cod here, and in New England, they're allowed to fish 88 days a year, with no restrictions on the catch.

He winds up telling them: "Our situation is way worse than your situation, and I don't want to hear any more whining from any of you for the rest of the weekend."

Like snapping at the seagulls.

What many land lubbers may not know (certainly, I didn't) is that there are some species of rock fish that live to be 150 years old the Methuselahs of the seas.

"Some of them don't even start spawning until they're 20-30 years old," Kline informs me. "The black cod, they only live 40 or 50 years, but there's one other fish that we catch along with them a little, red, deep-water rock fish kind of critter, and they live to be 125 years old. One species of rock fish some of these were swimming around out there when Abraham Lincoln was president. Well, you don't go and over-exploit things like that; they're not coming back real quick."

It sounds familiar like the redwoods. And Kline, in fact, makes that analogy.

"Years ago," he says, "there were little logging railroads coming out of every single valley in the mountains, and mills at the head of all the valleys this great big infrastructure to harvest all that old-growth timber. But after you've cut it all, your sustained yield levels are quite a bit lower. We're in the same situation in the fishing industry."

Small wonder that Kline today is one of those fishermen who have gotten active as fishing environmentalists, lobbyists, educators, whatever the name.

Kline's boat, ClunyHe has held a seat on the ground-fishing advisory panel, a committee that advises the Pacific Fisheries Management Council; he is a board member of the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association; and in October he was re-elected to a second term as president of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council.

The last he describes as "one of our answers and strategies to have a more effective voice for changing management policies to get us on a sustainable course."

He explains: "As individuals going to (management) council meetings (or before Congress), it's pretty easy to be dismissed, especially by the economic powers that are running the show."

But the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, only in its second year, has a board membership extending from Bellingham, Wash., to Santa Barbara, and includes sport, charter and commercial fishermen, marine scientists and environmentalists, and Indian tribal interests.

"We seem to have established a credible presence in the management circles at both state and federal levels," Kline said. "So our idea of getting a larger voice that won't be easily dismissed is starting to work out."

His missionary work has resulted in articles in such journals as the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Times. The write-up in the latter evokes a typical Kline quip: "Even the very right-wing, conservative folks want to have something to eat, so the Washington Times supports fish."

On the opening day of crabbing season we get together for another session, at the Kline home on Mitchell Road "Look for the big fish on the mailbox," he tells me. Kline does do some crabbing, but "on a very limited scale anymore." He finds the fishing grounds too crowded with big boats, "and there's all kinds of political problems trying to negotiate for a price." He concludes by saying, as he does about much of the fishing scene today: "It's not a good situation."

Anyhow, Kline wasn't planning to go out on the water that stormy day because of the 30- and 40-foot swells reported. "I don't really want to die trying to catch a fish," he says.

At 47, Phil Kline is lean and trim, clean-shaven, with a hatch of dark hair only beginning to show a bit of gray at the sideburns.

"I married a local gal Mary Spinas," he tells me. "Fifth generation from Trinidad. Her family homesteaded what's now Patrick's Point State Park, and her great grandparents traded it off for property closer to town so that her grandmother could go to school." Mrs. Kline was in McKinleyville that day, at her job as a veterinarian's assistant.

A few years back Phil and Mary drove up to British Columbia to dig into the history of the Cluny, their 40-foot salmon trawler, which they've had since 1979. The boat was built in 1946, and they are its fourth owners. They knew that it was built in the town of Edgmont, B.C., and through some persistent sleuthing there they learned that the builders were three Finnish brothers who salmon-fished every summer and every winter built a wooden fishing boat, then sold it in the spring.

"They built a half a dozen larger boats like the Cluny, all by hand, and all of them in their 70s when they did it," Phil relates. "And they named them all after different kinds of liquor. (Cluny is a well-known brand of scotch.) So I kinda figure that every winter they'd buy cases of whatever liquor it was, and in the springtime they'd just nail the empty carton on the stern, push her out the door into the water, and away they went. "

Kline usually goes to sea with a crew of one. "But if for some reason my deckhand doesn't show up if he's sick, or hung over, whatever then I just go by myself. It doesn't stop me from going fishing."

The professional fishing crewman is another disappearing breed. "There's not enough money in the business anymore to attract those kinds of fishermen," Kline said.

He tells one of the standing tales among boat owners:

"You don't want to pay your crew, because every time you pay them, they just go buy a bunch of drugs and alcohol, and get all screwed up and end up in jail. So the longer you can get away with not paying them, the more chances are that you're going to have a crew."

He adds, "It's not across the board. There are some really good professional crewmen, but there's a very limited pool. I don't have too much trouble. Most of my crewmen will last anywhere from a year to several years, which is really unusual. There's a high turnover."

Asked how many days a year he gets in fishing, he replies: "As many as I can. On an average, somewhere between 100 and 150. This past year was probably the least days I've ever gotten, because of the weather. Probably only averaged 5 to 6 days a month. And then we had lower prices for most things across the board this year. It's by far the worst production in amount of money I've made in the last 20 years."

Then, too, there's the time spent in his tireless campaigning for sustainable fisheries.

"It's impossible to put a dollar figure on it," he says, "but it's probably cost me a third of my fishing time over the last six years."

And will probably continue doing so, as Phil Kline is convinced the only way the little guys can fight the big boys is by raising public awareness to keep them under political pressure.

"Realistically," he says, "we need to buy out vessels, to buy out fish plants, set up some kind of vocational training opportunities for the displaced fishermen and plant workers, so they can transition into some other business because there's not going to be enough fishery resources to support the amount of vessels and gear and everything that were built to cut the old growth. We haven't yet figured a way to do it, and there's a lot of people going bankrupt, losing their houses, losing their vessels, causing lots of family strife."

He paints a somber picture. "As it is now, the handful of guys who are top-end producers are squabbling over the last few fish and trying to eliminate all the small guys. And once the little guys are eliminated, then they'll fight amongst themselves.

"Are we going to end up with 30 or 40 really big producing operations on the whole length of the West Coast? Or are we going to end up with several hundred smaller operations like this size that would last forever?"

Then he takes the words right out of my mouth. "It's just like the farmers," he says. "There's a whole bunch of other people in similar situations, and they all lost to the corporate takeover kind of deal. And I'm sure the family farmers and the independent grazers all fought the same kind of battles that small fishermen are fighting now, and they all lost, went down the tubes."

Will the small fishermen go the same way? "We don't know yet," Kline says. "The jury's out. It's a battle that's ongoing."

One things for sure: It's going to take guys like Phil Kline to hang in there, fighting.

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