The Lure of the Harbor Town

By Jaffe, Matthew | Sunset, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Lure of the Harbor Town


Jaffe, Matthew, Sunset


PORT ANGELES, TRINIDAD, NEWPORT Brave and beautiful, three classic fishing ports invite you to share their passion for the sea

It's low tide on Yaquina Bay, Oregon, on the afternoon before the annual blessing of the fleet. Great blue herons fish the shallow channels that flow through the mudflats, where clam diggers in knee-high rubber boots poke at the liquid earth. An osprey wheels overhead as a fishing boat glides under the 1936 Yaquina Bay Bridge, passes an 1871 lighthouse, and heads out into the open ocean trailed by the low moan of a foghorn. * Down the waterfront, crews scrub down decks and mend nets on a fleet of boats with names straight out of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row: Anona Kay, Miss Yvonne, and Pacific Hooker. Sea lions haul out beneath the Abbey Street Pier; crab traps, still redolent of the depths where they were deployed, sit in head-high stacks in front of a mural depicting Moby Dick wreaking mayhem on a whaling boat. * Watching all the activity are Newport's s tourists, who, after gazing their fill at the harbor, window-shop along Bay Boulevard, then make a lunchtime stop at Mo's, famous for its clam chowder. The se visitors are part of a tourist tradition that dates back to the 19th century. But the coverall-clad fishermen grabbing a late cup of coffee or picking up supplies at marine supply stores are a reminder that, above all else, this is a working community, forever connected to the sea. * Newport is one of the West's classic harbor towns. These are places where life plays Out according to a set of rhythms dictated by the tides, the seasons, and the ebb and flow of commerce. In Newport and in such other Pacific harbor towns as Port Angeles, Washington, and Trinidad, California, the heart-stopping beauty of the coast and the grittier realities of industry coexist. Salmon, halibut, and Dungeness crabs still are caught by local boats, but many harbor towns are places in transition. The depletion of the bounty on which they have long depended along with more stringent regulations have forced sometimes difficult economic and social changes.

In Port Angeles, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Victoria ferry emerges from the mists like some modern-day ghost ship, then fires off a couple blasts of its horn as it eases into the harbor after making the passage across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Down the waterfront at High Tide Seafoods, workers busily assemble 1,000 boxes and scrub down floors and tables in anticipation of the arrival of several tons of halibut.

The company is now the last fish processing facility in town. Strict limits on commercial fishing takes combined with low prices for salmon decimated the local fleet and its support businesses. While there's still plenty of sportfishing, most of Port Angeles's commercial fishing boats are gone, and the longtime annual Salmon Derby festival tradition has gone with them. And yet some Port Angeles residents refuse to give up.

"Salmon hit rock bottom in 1995-96. But I guess I was just too stubborn to quit," says High Tide's co-owner Jim Shefler, who works with Native American commercial fishers. "When I started in the mid-1970s, wild coho went for $1 a pound. But with farmed salmon, the price is now 25 cents a pound, so we have had to diversify with crab and black cod. If we tried to do what we did 15 years ago, we would have gone out of business."

Port Angeles has always depended on its harbor. Ediz Hook, a curving 2 1/2-mile-long sand spit where logging trucks once lined up almost bumper-to-bumper, creates the deepest natural harbor on the West Coast. During the Civil War, the harbor was considered such an important national resource that in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln established a military and naval reserve on the site. High hopes for a grand future led city fathers to base the town's original layout on that of Cincinnati.

But the grandest ambitions of Port Angeles never came to pass. …

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