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Few people think of San Francisco Bay as a sportfisherman's dream. But up until a few weeks ago, local charter boat skippers and small-craft anglers alike shared a secret fishing spot on the bay.
Unfortunately, it was just offshore from the fouled and decommissioned Hunters Point naval base.
In June, what fishermen like to call a "hot bite" drew a flurry of about 20 boats to the waters off an old military pier. They were hooking halibut and striped bass "left and right," according to a fisherman who was there; another who wasn't says he noticed the action from his seat in Candlestick Park at a Giants game.
"I saw all the boats out there," he says, "and I figured something hot was going on."
But that was before the Coast Guard roared up in a cutter and crashed the party by enforcing a long-ignored navigation rule against coming within 500 yards of a Navy base -- going so far as to board several boats and write four notices of violation.
Ted Varena, owner-operator of the charter boat Miss Farallones and one of the four skippers who were fined, says the signs warning boats away from the old shipyard are all but unreadable anyway. "They're all full of sea gull doo-doo and you can't really read 'em," he claims. "And the ones that you can read are in Vietnamese and Spanish, and I don't speak neither one."
Varena, who served two tours in Vietnam and admits to having a short fuse with federal officials, says he lost his patience after a Coast Guard officer asked the paying customers on his boat to throw back their fish. (The Coast Guard denies asking anyone to throw back their fish.)
"The guy come up, and he started telling my customers that the fish we were catching there were all contaminated, and that they should throw them back," says Varena. "I said, 'Whoa. Stop right there. Where are your credentials to tell me those fish are contaminated? Those same bass we're catching right there are feeding on the anchovies that swim throughout the whole bay. I can't see how they could be any more contaminated than the ones at the Bay Bridge.'
"He got pretty snotty then, and he asked for my driver's license. And he says, 'We don't want any back talk from you,' and I says, 'Hey, buddy. I'm 53 years old and you're about 22. You show me some respect here. I'm retired Marine Corps.' Well, that didn't impress him too much. And he took and he wrote us a citation."
Most skippers claim to believe the 500-yard limit applies only to an active shipyard. Hunters Point has been decommissioned since 1974, and no one has been cited under the rule there for years.
Which is where it gets interesting: The Coast Guard says its sudden decision to enforce the rule had to do with pollution in the mud around the yard, a Superfund cleanup site.
Boats had been fishing off Hunters Point in increasing numbers for weeks, and Coast Guard Executive Petty Officer Ken Zink says Department of Defense police stationed at Hunters Point called the Coast Guard on June 14 to get the flurry of boats away from the yard because the Navy didn't want the bay bottom disturbed.
When a single charter boat drops its lines, anywhere from six to 40 lead sinkers hit bottom and let leaders with anchovy-baited hooks drift a few feet above the ocean mud. The Coast Guard says it was worried about poisoned silt being stirred up by the sinkers.
The Navy's environmental coordinator for the shipyard, Mike McClelland, says the underwater section of the yard is most heavily contaminated in the South Basin, between Hunters Point on the north and Candlestick Point to the south, because of seepage and outflow from Yosemite Creek. The piers where the fishermen hooked bass are just north of the basin. McClelland doubts the bass and halibut there have a higher level of poison than fish anywhere else in the bay because "there are no fish that are resident around the shipyard."
Chris Shirley, who works for a nonprofit called Arc Ecology, which monitors military bases, says the major contaminants around Hunters Point are heavy metals, including copper, lead, mercury, and zinc. "They also had industrial activities going on on the ground, and when it rained, the dust and soil and stuff washed into the bay," she adds. Other chemicals found at the base include tributyl-10 (which the Navy says it never used), PCBs, arsenic, chromium, DDT, a pesticide called chlordane, and a small amount of silver.
Still, Shirley doubts Hunters Point is any worse than the rest of the bay. "The whole bay is contaminated," she says. "The fishermen are basically right. The fish would only become contaminated [in South Basin] if they're bottom-feeders, or if they spend a lot of time in the Hunters Point area."
The state Fish and Game Department has listed a general advisory about the bay in its fishing regulations for years: Adults shouldn't dine on sportfish from the bay more than twice a month; pregnant women are supposed to limit themselves to one meal a month. But the department has no special advice on Hunters Point, and the sudden action by the Coast Guard angered the Fishermen's Association, which sent the Coast Guard a stiff note of protest.