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OP-ED: Preserving the fishing industry at the Harbor District
March 18, 2014, 05:00 AM By Sabrina Brennan

For decades, the San Mateo County Harbor Patrol has provided emergency response on both the Bay and the ocean. Through its highly trained Harbor Patrol, the Harbor District is the only agency that stations search and rescue vessels on the coast. Emergency response is vital for recreational boating, commercial fishing, surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding and windsurfing. The Harbor Patrol saves lives and, for this reason and many others, the Harbor District is a necessary special district. But sometimes what’s most important gets lost in the shuffle of upper management and contentious board meetings.

Battle to preserve

our fishing heritage

Does a vibrant local fishing industry add to your quality of life? If so, you should know fees at Pillar Point Harbor are so high that some of our commercial fishermen are going to ports in other counties.

In 2012, Harbor Commissioners Jim Tucker, Robert Bernardo and Will Holsinger approved the highest fish buying fees in California and local fishermen are outraged over it.

Commercial fisherman Steve Fitz, and the HMB Seafood Marketing Association, oppose the new fees for fish offloaded at Johnson Pier. No other harbor in the state imposes fees as high as those at Pillar Point. Monterey Harbor charges much lower fees and Pier 45 in San Francisco does not charge any fees.

In 2012, fishermen were promised the Harbor District would evaluate and adjust non-competitive fees tied to long-term leases. The commissioners have had ample time to correct the problem, however, they appear unwilling to reconsider their policy decision.

In 2013, Bettencourt Fisheries, a fourth generation commercial fishing company asked the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury to investigate leasing deals in Pillar Point Harbor. As the highest bidder for a fish-buying lease, they’re angry the district gave leases to companies bidding considerably less.

After seven years at Oyster Point Marina, slip tenant Erik Simonson recently moved his boat. He and other tenants are angry about what they describe as poor management, inadequate communication, a dramatic increase in slip rent automatically withdrawn from their bank accounts, lost rent checks resulting in liens on their boats, delays with deposit refunds and musical chairs with boats being relocated to different slips multiple times a month.

Video coverage terminated

With so many unhappy constituents, meetings have become acrimonious. How does the commission handle that?

Last summer, the board voted 3-2 to terminate videotaping meetings. Tucker reasoned that a contract with Pacifica Community Television should end because, “It’s like a fungus.”

The decision resulted in the public volunteering to live-stream meetings. YouTube videos have become an embarrassment because the public doesn’t always provide neutral video coverage. Hopefully, commissioners will bring back professional video broadcasting soon.

Is the district

mired in the past?

I included LinkedIn and Twitter links in my biography on the district website. The other commissioners objected and voted to instruct the district’s legal counsel to investigate whether those contact methods should be removed. After disagreeing with in-house counsel’s report of “no problem,” the board approved Holsinger’s request to waste more public resources by asking the commission to pursue it through the attorney general.

What should the

Harbor District look like?

Commercial fishing is a difficult and risky endeavor, and independent fishermen are an endangered species. Increasingly, restrictive regulations, decreasing fish populations and foreign competition have forced many fishermen out of business. Nevertheless, local fleet members have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure fish populations remain healthy by using sustainable harvesting practices.

The Coastside Fishing Club’s program of releasing baby salmon at Pillar Point Harbor is the kind of action that helps our ecosystem and local fishermen. This type of stakeholder initiative deserves continued support from public agencies.

The Harbor District can help the local economy and community in the following ways: promote sustainable seafood, attract coastal tourism, provide environmental education and support the Harbor Patrol search and rescue team. Ideally, a marketing program could promote harbor business and increase ferry ridership, which would raise revenue while increasing job growth.

Before we consider such forward-looking ideas, we need to address the basics. The master plan is 23 years old. It envisions major capital projects that are no longer relevant. Minor improvements like sidewalks or a new hoist are delayed and bungled. Sewage leaks are not reported to the commission. We waste huge sums on office rent. Checks from tenants are lost in a drawer for months. Accounting controls are ignored. Most importantly, our harbor constituents are extremely discontent.

Despite frustrations this past year I’ve managed to accomplish goals. I successfully made the case for bringing Wi-Fi to both Oyster Point and Pillar Point, and the board recently approved Wi-Fi in a unanimous vote. I made the case for a new strategic plan to replace the outdated 1991 Master Plan, and I discovered a leaky sewage pipe under Johnson Pier that is now being replaced. I’m working on reviving a sidewalk widening project that was shelved years ago. If approved, the sidewalk would provide small business that lease from the district with additional space for outdoor café tables at Pillar Point Harbor.

The Harbor Commission answers to all the voters of San Mateo County. This November, I expect we’ll have several worthy candidates. I hope voters will look closely at the incumbents and challengers and make an informed decision.

Sabrina Brennan is an elected member of the San Mateo County Harbor Commission. She can be reached by phone at (650) 479-5654. Her website is



Tags: harbor, district, point, fishing, pillar, fishermen,

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