By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
MUCH OF THE '70S AND '80S I SPENT outside of the United States, and my visits to the pier became less frequent. Fisherman's Wharf closed, and fishing was in sharp decline. Only an energetic citizens' movement saved the pier from being torn down by the city of Santa Monica in 1973. The mackerel fleet had long disappeared, and so had a lot of the big fish.
Then came the two killer storms of January and March 1983. The first pushed 30-foot swells over the pier, and as hundreds watched from the palisades, the northwest corner tumbled into the roaring sea. No sooner had the city decided to repair the damage than an even more powerful storm screamed ashore on March 1. Fifteen-foot waves pushed by 40-mph winds ate away at the already weakened pilings. As destiny would have it, a 30-ton pile-drive crane had been parked at the end of the pier as part of the earlier repair efforts.
"I remember hearing the news of the storm that night over the Coast Guard radio," says Yosh. "I rushed around telling people to get ready for the worst. I made some calls telling them to move that darn crane back off the end of the pier. But they moved too little too late." Shortly after 10 that night, the crane collapsed off the end of the pier, and the huge waves drove it like a battering ram again and again against the pilings. The fall of the pier is vividly rendered in Jeffrey Stanton's published history. He describes piling after piling cracking and collapsing. Yosh tells me: "My supervisor called me around 10 that night and said, 'Come on down and watch the pier go down.' It just ripped me apart. I'll never forget seeing the handrail buckle and go down. Before I knew it, it had all gone down. I felt like I was crushed with it. In the end, we lost almost the whole thing -- nearly a thousand feet had collapsed."
This horrifying near-death of the pier coincided with the low point in the health of the bay. Several environmental campaigns, many led personally by Rim Fay, helped curb and end toxic dumping. But the accumulated damage was devastating. In the 1980s, some bay fish were tested and still showed industrial amounts of DDT. "We were seeing fin erosion and tumors in the croakers," Fay says in an interview at his cluttered Inglewood warehouse/apartment. Inside, he maintains several tanks of living sea creatures that he sells to university labs and shows off to touring groups of young students.
But with radical improvements in sewage technology spurred by such groups as Heal the Bay, with heightened environmental consciousness seeping into public policy, things in Santa Monica Bay got better as the pier was being reconstructed. "I'm excited by little victories like once again being able to see my feet in the water -- something I couldn't do for 30 years," Fay says. He adds that, generally speaking and with a few exceptions around Palos Verdes, most of the fish now taken from the bay once again meet prevailing health standards.
But Fay's long view is grim. "In grand historical terms, we are still losing the battle. All the beaches are at record widths. The bottom is rising. The seaweed has all but died off, and when it goes it takes with it starfish, abalone and so on. There's no real presence of forage fish, of sardines, anchovies, squid. Global warming eats up more and more of our habitat. And we have more and more sediment buildup, runoff from the city, eradication of wetlands. Do I make my point?"
Fay pauses. He wipes his hands on his stained sweatpants and then wipes away a visible tear from his left eye. "This," he says, "this is my burden. My burden is having dived this bay for more than 40 years and knowing what it once looked like and knowing what it looks like today."
ON FATHER'S DAY, I RETURN TO THE pier after nearly a month's absence. Yosh has organized his Third Annual Father's Day Fishing Derby, and I can't miss it.
The night before, I stock up on tackle and re-spool and clean a couple of my favorite Penn reels. For this derby I will use one of the newer-generation fast-gear-ratio jobs. I reserve my beloved and classic Squidder for my 15-year-old daughter, Natasha.
Trouble with a flat tire gets me to the pier after lunch. But I wasn't planning to arrive very early in any case. The chart tells me that high tide will peak at 5:02 p.m., just two minutes past the derby cutoff. This fact, and the phase of the moon, says fellow pier junkie Bobby Carvel, should guarantee a bodacious late afternoon's worth of fishing.
As I get to the midway point on the pier, I get the worst kind of news for any fisherman. Chino, who again has got a single keeper-size croaker in his bucket, razzes me by informing me that during the past three weeks I have missed the all-time blowout run of sargo. "Hundreds of them, hermano. Hundreds and hundreds. Too bad for you."