The Scalawags of Fisherman's Wharf

Dishonest and unsavory fishermen have found a home at the docks, where rent is cheap.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the scene at Pier 49 at Fisherman's Wharf was postcard perfect. The sun glistened off the decks of three rows of fishing boats as they subtly rose and dipped in the emerald-green bay. A fisherman in overalls wiped down the planks of a boat as another sat on the foredeck of his vessel, eating an al fresco crawfish lunch. Now and then, a sea lion surfaced and snorted.

The words of local historian Alessandro Baccari Jr. never seemed truer. "Fisherman's Wharf is the crowning jewel of all of San Francisco's scenic charms," he wrote in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, a collection of historic photographs and stories published in 2006. "Here [visitors] can peer down at the fishing craft gently riding in the calm water, or pause to watch fishermen mending a net and listen to Italian-tongued exchanges among the followers of the sea."

Visitors were indeed doing just that. As a respite from the otherwise dollar-hungry waterfront, some were taking their lunches on seagull-poop–stained benches in an alcove adjacent to the fishing boat lagoon. Others had requested west-facing window seats in the upstairs dining room at Alioto's and were asking the servers about the local fleet. Do the fishermen still work? What fish do they catch out there?

Those visitors most interested in fishing boats set out on a self-guided walking tour, punctuated by 30 signs installed by the Port of San Francisco. The signs explain the history and current workings of the wharf, weaving in details such as the Fishermen's and Seamen's Memorial Chapel, which honors local fishermen lost at sea, and the brief banning of undocumented Italian immigrants from the fishing industry during World War II.

The signs are informative, no doubt, but there's a certain aspect of the wharf they never address, a subject as old as the industry itself: rogue fishermen. With its criminals and poachers, its deviants and scalawags, Fisherman's Wharf is in fact a far more interesting — if disquieting — place than any travel brochure would have tourists believe.

Of course, the fishing industry is notorious for its larger-than-life, less-than-virtuous characters, but in pulling back the curtain, the scene at Fisherman's Wharf exceeds all expectations.

As the fishing industry has declined, the Port of San Francisco has put preserving this backdrop of working fishermen at the top of its agenda. That means rent, storage, and parking costs have stayed at the lowest levels on the West Coast. And, more interestingly, sometimes-crude and even criminal behavior has largely been tolerated by the authorities. In some cases, it has taken a decade or more for the Port to evict delinquent fishermen; some have seemingly caught on to their protected status.

Husband-and-wife poaching team Larry and Anna Wong are the best recent example. The Chinese immigrants, who arrived via Vietnam, have been subverting maritime law up and down the California coast since the early '90s, picking up state and federal violations like so much bycatch (the fishing term for unintentionally caught marine animals). They've rarely paid rent on time, and seem to treasure the language barrier — using it at every opportunity to explain away, say, another 1,000 pounds of illegally caught rockfish.

The Wongs haven't fooled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or California Fish and Game, which have repeatedly revoked their federal and state fishing permits. For his violations, Larry Wong has earned lifetime bans on commercial fishing in California and federally regulated waters.

But take a guess where you can find the Wongs' boat.


Nobody knows the wharf's troublemakers better than Hedley Prince, its harbormaster (or wharfinger) of around 12 years, who has the task of dealing with derelict boats and their unruly owners. The curious and good-humored lover of history and all things maritime has stocked his Pier 47 office with maps, pictures of old boats, and a library about fishing and the sea. Though he likes to think of himself as a curator of a living museum and a preserver of the city's history, he often feels like the attendant at a floating parking lot.

For a guy like Prince, the wharfinger job would be a dream if it weren't for those thick files cluttering his otherwise tidy office. "I have a rule around here," he says, sorting through stacks of papers belonging to fishermen with berth agreements at Piers 47, 49, and the Hyde Street Harbor. "The thicker a person's file is," he says, lifting two giant folders belonging to one fisherman, "the more of a pain in the butt he is."

Those pains in the butt have included live-aboard bums, speed dealers, poachers, and criminals. The main problem, Prince says, is that bums show up masquerading as fishermen and try to live on their rundown vessels. To prevent the wharf from becoming a transient trailer park, the Port demands that fishermen submit documents on how much fish they've caught. If they don't reach a certain amount, they must pay more than twice as much rent.

That's not to say there's an expectation that fishing folks should always be angels. Some have spent time in prison, which doesn't much matter in an industry known for accepting roustabouts. The Port has a pretty low bar for doling out berth agreements. All you have to be is a fisherman — and not even an honest one at that.

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