When a salmon trawler washed up on Limantour Beach last week, West Marin residents were reminded of an age-old story—that of a man, a boat and the unforgiving sea.
Captain Duncan MacLean set out last Sunday morning from Half Moon Bay with the hope of a good catch. He’d struggled through some lean years as a result of fishing moratoriums and increased regulations. But this year salmon predictions were good, and up and down the Pacific coast fishermen like him were gearing up for what was expected to be a banner year.
The Barbara Faye, named for Mr. MacLean’s daughter, was a 43-foot wooden stunner built 30 years ago in Canada. He’d searched high and low for a trawler like her, and finally found her in British Columbia’s Annville Slough. A vintage beauty with a white exterior and gray lettering, her cozy wood-paneled cabin had a double bed, a well-stocked pantry and a stove in the corner for keeping warm on cold nights at sea.
Mr. MacLean would not normally have made this trip alone. In his early years on the water his wife usually accompanied him. Then, beginning in 1976, he’d almost always worked with a small crew. But as life became harder for small commercial operations like his, that help dwindled to a single deck hand.
“Nowadays there is so much red tape that it’s hard to find new crew on short notice,” he said. “I set her up as a one-man show just in case I ever needed it. You don’t want to lose valuable days.”
He’d planned to depart Saturday night, but when his deck hand suffered what he called “a girlfriend meltdown” and he still couldn’t find a replacement by morning, the captain decided to go it alone. He’d managed it on his own as a younger man, and despite his hard-weathered 62 years he didn’t see himself as slowing down.
The word on the water was that the salmon fishing was plentiful above Point Reyes, but Mr. MacLean had a hunch about the Farallones and headed for the islands first. He stuck in his first line and right away pulled up two fish. Then he let his second line out, and pull up two more. The day’s luck continued, and he sang while he worked, alone on the sea’s glistening bounty, hauling in some 400 pounds of sturdy Chinook salmon.
When he met up with his friend Larry Fortado above the Point on Monday, Mr. MacLean realized he should have stayed where he was. While the numbers there were good, the fish were small, and he decided to head back to the islands.
But after two days of hard fishing, the captain was tired. Rounding the point near midnight, he realized that one of his stabilizers was caught in a crab pot. The waves were rough, and as the boat pitched on the dark waters, he knew he couldn’t easily free her. He decided to come in to anchor at Drakes Bay and try again by first light.
As the Barbara Faye labored her way against the waves on autopilot, her progress slowed by the dragging trap, Mr. MacLean played solitaire to stay awake until he could get close enough to anchor.
It was past 2 a.m. when he entered the shelter of the bay and the waves calmed. Comfortable in his chair at the helm, his eyes felt heavy. He decided to close them, just for a second. He awoke as the boat hit ground on Limantour Beach.
“This can’t be,” he thought in dismay. When he tried but failed to get her back off the sand, he feared the boat was a goner.
Earlier this spring, the Pacific Coast Fishery Management Council reported a dramatically rebounding California salmon population of up to 15 times that of 2006. The forecast marked a drastic departure from the extinction-level lows that led to the largest-ever fishery closures during 2008 and 2009, when the federal government paid $230 million in disaster assistance to an already beleaguered industry.
But it wasn’t fishing that was at fault. Leading researchers in the field attributed the crash to dams, pesticides, rising water temperatures and outbreaks of the C. Shasta parasite, an ecological tragedy largely unreported in the media that caused infected salmon to die and vanish at sea. Now, small-scale fishing operations like Mr. MacLean’s are trying to make up for lost time by working harder and for longer hours—a push that can exact a heavy price.
Aaron Ely and Mark Bowen, employees at the Point Reyes Hostel, were just starting work last Tuesday when what looked like a red spaceman came lumbering up the hostel drive. Dressed in his survival suit, Mr. MacLean had been forced to clamber into the surf where the Barbara Faye had lodged herself, just north of the Coast Camp trailhead. He tried to make for the ranger house above the south parking lot, but ended up on the two-mile road to the hostel instead.
He was wet and exhausted, but after he was fed and dressed in dry clothes, he set about making arrangements to try to save what he could of his boat and find a buyer for his catch.
But Lieutenant Commander Tracy Phillips of the U.S. Coast Guard told Mr. MacLean he needed to get tested for drugs and alcohol. While he had a 30-hour window in which to do the drug test, a specimen to screen for alcohol needed to be collected within two hours.
“She was adamant that I get it done,” Mr. MacLean said. “She told me to go get a specimen and take it to a lab.” But even though he eventually managed to obtain a container from a medical supply company, no lab would take him without a referral. Meanwhile, he was losing valuable time on the beach, where he still had valuable equipment and 600 pounds of salmon in an ice hole on his vessel.
Tim Parker and his crew at Parker Diving Service arrived on the scene around 10 a.m. and began siphoning off the boat’s 300 gallons of diesel fuel. Throughout the day it remained unclear what would happen to the trawler.
This was not the first time Mr. MacLean had beached a boat at Limantour, either. The original Barbara Faye ran aground there in 2000. In that instance, the captain claims half of his catch was wrongly appropriated by the park service.
Sometime around 4 p.m., Parker Diving staffer Maria Nunn says the crew discovered that the hull of the Barbara Faye had been breached by the crashing surf and was taking on water. No longer seaworthy, the boat could either be airlifted off the beach and brought in for repair—at a cost of more than $125,000—or demolished.
With Mr. MacLean still absent and the Barbara Faye uninsured, Mr. Parker made the call to scrap her.
John Dell’Osso, spokesman for Point Reyes National Seashore, said everything on board, including the fish, was the captain’s property and would not have been removed by the park service.
However, a ranger and a salvage worker at the scene said their crews had pitched in to remove the fish. By the time Mr. MacLean returned to the beach, his catch had been sitting out for several hours and was no longer in salable condition.
Articulate despite his gruff outdoorsman exterior, Mr. MacLean has at times been something of a hero in the California salmon fishing community. When wholesale prices plummeted unfairly in the early 1990’s, he was instrumental in the push to allow fisherman to sell their catch directly to the public.
“We could sell every single fish caught in the Bay Area to Bay Area consumers,” he said. “We managed to make it so that harbor permits were given out for only $1, and anyone who wanted to come into port and sell directly was urged to do so.”
President of the Half Moon Bay Fisherman’s Association, vice chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel and Salmon Technical Advisor for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Mr. MacLean has put an impressive amount of time into defending the industry he loves—small, local, sustainable fishing operations. In 2003, when the wholesale price for salmon fell to as low as 75 cents per pound, he and fellow fishermen decided to give their catch away for free.
“When we’re only getting [that little from wholesalers], we might as well give it away,” he said at the time. The stunt not only delighted the public, but helped enforce realistic prices that enabled the fisherman to stay in business.
Mr. MacLean was even seen giving away salmon to passersby on Limantour late Tuesday afternoon, after he had realized it could no longer be sold. What was left was then driven to the kitchen of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
“It was wonderful,” Saint Vincent outreach coordinator Christine Paquette said of the donation. “We were actually low on meat that night, and then someone just showed up with more than 500 pounds of fresh salmon!”
The fish provided meals for 350 people in need a day for several days, San Rafael dining room manager Jay Karutz said. “We made delicious Cajun-style salmon steaks. It’s sometimes hard for us to serve proteins, since we are entirely donation-based. So salmon fresh off the boat was just awesome. It was really appreciated.”
For Mr. MacLean, however, things were not so rosy. By Wednesday morning the Barbara Faye was mostly demolished. Half-submerged in sand, her name was just visible above the pounding waves.
Two mountains of rubble were heaped on the beach, one containing general debris from the ship’s body and her contents, the other recyclable metals. Since the scrapping had started without him, Mr. MacLean was unable to recover his personal items, electronics and equipment—including lights worth $1,000 each and a $4,000 lifeboat—much of which was mulched into the splintered wreckage. It looked like the aftermath of a hurricane.
Mr. MacLean surveyed the devastation, looking for anything of monetary or sentimental value. Over the next several days he would haul away a large wooden cross section that had been painted by a friend, some damaged lights, the mast and other odds and ends.
“I understand that there was a limited window in which they needed to get things done,” he conceded. “But still . . . there [wasn’t] a whole lot of compassion. It must get old after a while, but [Mr. Parker] doesn’t seem to recognize how much of a person is wrapped up in a thing like that.”
While Parker Diving initially estimated the cleanup would cost between $70,000 and $80,000, that cost is likely to climb.
At the beach, ranger Rene Buehl told Mr. MacLean that paying for the Barbara Faye’s salvage would mean the seashore would have to lay off staff. When pressed, he modified the comment, saying a possible layoff would be temporary.
Mr. Dell’Osso said that although absorbing $80,000 would be “painful”, it was unlikely to result in layoffs. “We have no disaster funds, no contingency funds to cover something like this,” he said. “It’s not in our budget.”
For Mr. MacLean’s part, he’s trying to piece his life back together as best he can. He has his eye on a boat at auction for a reasonable price, and he vows to be out fishing again by the middle of June.
“I’m not usually someone who asks for help,” he said, “but if people call offering, this time I may take them up on it and say—you know, I could really use some flashers.”