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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
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Sierra Magazine
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Profile: Bold Man and the Sea
To help fishermen, he fights for fish.
by Bill Donahue

Zeke Grader: "The days when all you had to do was get ice and take the boat out are over."
Mel Davis's hands were arthritic and bent, with huge, swollen knuckles. They were so stiff that, sometimes in the mornings at the fish plant, he had to use his more supple left hand to squeeze the fingers of his right hand into place on the salmon-splitting knife.

Davis was in his 70s when a boy named Zeke Grader met him 50 years ago in the fish-processing facility run by Grader's parents in Fort Bragg, California. He had been splitting salmon into neat halves up and down the West Coast since the turn of the century, and his voice was deep and aggrieved. "If I quit," he frequently croaked to young Grader, "I'll die."

Old Mel drank Wild Turkey, Grader remembers, and the pungent aroma of salmon was ingrained permanently into his person. But he was only part of Zeke Grader's childhood. Grader also remembers the fresh cedar smell of the waterfront shop where two Finnish brothers made wooden fishing boats; and the nearby diesel engine shop, and the adventure of taking a rowboat out into the surf and getting rescued from the surging tide by a fisherman friend of his dad's. "There was a sense of camaraderie," he says, "and a sense that this was a place where you could still be yourself."

There was something deeper, too: Salmon fishermen have been subsisting off the sea's bounty for over 10,000 years. They are dependent on the health of the oceans and the inland rivers and the forests that shade their tributaries. But in a modern world laced with highways and shopping malls, such connections are threatened. Grader first apprehended this in the early 1960s, readings books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. He became a workaday eco-warrior: a guy who regards nature not as intrinsically lovely (ah, that scenic vista!) but rather as a fount of resources that we must husband with care.

Salmon mean cash for thousands of small-scale fishermen like the one who caught this king just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.
Grader, now 57, has made the preservation of fish his life's work. Since 1976, he has been the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a San Francisco-based organization that represents 14 commercial fishing groups-a total of 1,800 people-concentrated in northern and central California. His members catch, among other things, salmon, Dungeness crab, albacore, black cod, and rockfish.

A stocky, broad-shouldered man, Grader has a sailor's sharp tongue and also, as it happens, a law degree from the University of San Francisco. Called a "street fighter nonpareil" by the San Francisco Chronicle, he has adapted nimbly over the years, shifting his tactics as the environmental playing field has evolved. In the '70s, when back-to-the-landers were first joining the fishing fleet, Grader saw his chance. He established a still-intact "salmon stamp" program, in which fishermen pay a few cents toward stream restoration for every salmon they land.

In the '80s, Grader worked with the Sierra Club to win legislation that enjoins oil companies from drilling new holes off the coast of California and along other large sections of U.S. coastline. Then, after President George W. Bush sought, in 2001, to divert salmon-sustaining bounties of Klamath River water to gargantuan farms, Grader joined Earthjustice in a lawsuit that partially checked the scheme. More recently, he has faced down a subtler, more ominous threat.

This February, when Mendocino County, California, was considering a ballot measure that would ban the growing of genetically modified crops, including fish, Grader's group threw its weight behind the initiative, giving it legitimacy among working-class voters. The measure passed, making Mendocino County the nation's first jurisdiction to outlaw biotech crops (see "Food for Thought," July/August).

Grader answers to a board of 14 directors and has one paid colleague housed in a satellite office. But essentially he is just a guy working solo, sans secretary, on a slice of his group's $125,000 annual budget. He's an independent operator who calls environmentally reckless corporations "rapists" and various bureaucrats "spineless and weak."

Naturally, his opponents regard him as an overwrought environmentalist whose obsessions cost the American public millions. John Griffith, the chair of the Coos County (Oregon) Board of Commissioners, tangled with Grader on the Klamath and says of his federation, "The product they market is controversy, backed by emotionalism."

"Zeke takes a lot of guff," acknowledges his friend Bill Kier, a Sausalito-based consultant who's been involved in California fishery issues for over four decades, "but he's very smart. He's steered the federation away from the fallacy that really hurt fishing in the Northwest and on the Gulf Coast and the East Coast-that fishermen need to ally with other resource extractors like loggers and oilfield workers. He takes a stronger stand for fish than anybody I know."

But before we go making Zeke Grader into some sort of Melvillean hero, we must recognize that he has never worked as a commercial fisherman. On an average day, he rushes about in a gold minivan going to meetings.

Last spring I spent several average days with Grader. The first one was cold and gray. We traveled to the back room of a bayside restaurant in Moss Landing, California, where Grader was to give a PowerPoint presentation to a dozen fishermen-stalwarts of the Moss Landing Commercial Fishermen's Association. About a dozen middle-aged men wearing fish-slimy blue jeans were waiting for us. They were unshaven and their hair was unruly and at odds with the antiseptic white walls of the restaurant. Most of them regarded Grader with a certain awe.

"We wouldn't be here fishing if it weren't for the work Zeke's done to keep water in rivers," said a soft-spoken, reflective man named Tom McCray. He added that, in the '70s, Grader helped rejuvenate the nation's only urban fishery-San Francisco Bay herring-by convincing the California Department of Fish and Game that his members could fish the bay sustainably, so long as they used large mesh nets to enable juvenile herring to swim free.

"When the federation's books don't balance," said Tom Hart, a small, weathered fisherman who sits on its board, "Zeke will often go months with almost no pay. People are afraid to give him direction. They're afraid he'll quit." Hart considered this prospect unthinkable, but still he was critical. "Zeke Grader," he continued, "is the Jerry Falwell of sustainable fisheries. He's come here to preach about why overfishing is bad. As far as I'm concerned, sustainability and socialism are the same thing."

Lunch came, and behind me I heard Grader's robust laugh above the clatter of china. All was copacetic, or so it seemed. Midway through Grader's presentation, however, a fisherman named Steve Fosmark rose from his fish and chips to give Grader the eye. Fosmark's T-shirt was ripped, and a black stubble sprouted from his wind-beaten skin. Earlier, he had decried Grader's work to regulate a burgeoning California squid fishery in the mid-1990s. Grader fought for-and attained-catch quotas.

"You have allied with environmental groups," Fosmark declaimed now, "and that erases everything else you have done. If you ask me"-the eye again-"they are the enemy!" Fosmark said nothing more. He grabbed his sweatshirt and stormed out of the building. Anyone who loves fishing probably wishes, with Steve Fosmark, that the ocean could be unregulated and free-but Grader's position is that that model doesn't work anymore. "The days when all you had to do was get ice and take the boat out are over," he says. "Now fishermen need to be active on issues like habitat loss and pollution. They need to be stewards. They can preserve their culture-it's a very good culture-but they need to push back against 'progress.'"

Continued
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Photographs coutesy J. Michael Tucker.

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