While seeking funds to update one of the most productive commercial fishing ports in the state, the San Mateo County Harbor District is receiving pushback from a group of fishermen who say they no longer trust the district has their best intentions at heart.

On April 28, the district applied for a $3.4 million grant from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), to help fund road and pier improvements at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.

Pillar Point Harbor is home to the county’s only coastside search and rescue vessel and team while also housing top performing commercial fishing fleets comprised of 100 commercial vessels and three offloading facilities, which generate about $6.5 million a year, according to the district.

Yet the district has fallen under suspicion by the public and the fishermen it’s meant to serve with accusations of backroom deals, high fish buying fees and the installation of a new hoist that benefits one fish buying company.

Although the improvements are meant to benefit the harbor’s fishing industry, some have spoken out against the district’s application citing frustration and lack of consultation with recent policy and infrastructure decisions.

The Half Moon Bay Seafood Marketing Association represents about 25 commercial fishermen at Pillar Point and, on May 19, it submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, through which the TIGER grant is issued.

The letter states that although the fishermen are cited as cause for the application, the association doesn’t support the district in its request.

Steve Fitz, a member of the association board, said the district has failed to confer with the commercial fishermen on policies and infrastructures that affect them.

“There’s just an ongoing bit of distrust and frankly, our association has not been really happy with the way the harbor district has been conducting itself,” Fitz said. “We simply want to be considered because the decisions they make, they impact our businesses directly. And therefore, we feel like we deserve to be at the table and we feel like we haven’t been.”

The district applied for this highly competitive grant to fund road improvements to create safer passage for large semi-trucks from Highway 1 to the pier and to retrofit and widen the tip of Johnson Pier where most of the commercial fishing traffic congestion occurs, District General Manager Peter Grenell said. Widening the pier would allow trucks to turn around so drivers would no longer have reverse the entire span of the pier to exit after picking up fish products. This would make it more efficient for the fishermen and safer for pedestrians, Grenell said.

Commissioner Sabrina Brennan said some of the improvements the district has had to make recently are long overdue and the grant is critical to helping it advance the harbor.

“Various emergencies have popped up and it’s an old district, the infrastructure is ancient and there’s wear and tear,” Brennan said. “And we’ve had a couple decades of deferred maintenance so it’s coming to a tipping point. … So it’s sort of like, we can’t not do stuff about it this year.”

Robert Bernardo, president of the Harbor District Board of Commissioners, said he’s sympathetic to the fishermen who feel overlooked and worried their letter could negatively affect the TIGER grant application.

“I’m concerned because, you know, ultimately what we want to do is we want to make the harbor a better place for visitors and the businesses in there,” Bernardo said. “I think what it boils down to, it’s feeling that [the association is] not a part of the decision-making process.”

It could be months before the district hears back about the TIGER grant and any awarded funds wouldn’t be received until 2016, Grenell said.

Brennan said some fishermen, who don’t trust the funds would be spent wisely, came out in full force at a board meeting last week.

“I think [the fishermen are] finding their voice really. They’re saying this isn’t right, we need to run this like a public agency instead of a private business and be transparent,” Brennan said. “And [the fishermen] felt like they were being used in the TIGER grant when it was convenient, but when it’s not convenient, no one wants to hear from them.”

Fitz said the letter shouldn’t have come as a big surprise since the association and fishermen have been asking to be included in decisions over infrastructure changes for some time. Yet the district has ignored them as evidenced by it installing the new hoist and raise fish buying fees, Fitz said.

In 2012, the district changed its fish buying fees to some of the highest in the state. The new contracts have been a major cause of disruption between the district and the fishermen.

Bernardo said changing the terms of the fish buying fees will require all three of the harbor’s offloading station lessees to make a complaint and the issue has been agendized at the upcoming board meeting June 4.

The district wants the fisherman to have input, Bernardo said, however, the association may have jumped the gun in writing the letter. The district has recently hired a consulting firm and the fishermen will be included as it outlines a strategic plan for the harbor, Bernardo said.

“I think what it boils down to it’s feeling that [the fishermen] aren’t part of the decision-making process and that’s the heart of it and these issues like the hoist are just examples for them that they’re not part of the process,” Bernardo said. “So one of the things we’re doing now is … launching our strategic plan for the next several years and that strategic plan includes a component of outreach to the community, including all of our stakeholders, so they can help us shape the future of the harbor.”

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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