No More Silence (Fishermen’s News, September, 2001)

September, 2001


Dedicated to the Memory of Nat Bingham
Pietro Parravano, Zeke Grader, Glen Spain Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

There is a poem with a haunting line, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The poem, though about death, could equally apply to the living in the form of commercial fishermen. Fishermen cannot afford to go gently down the path toward extinction, they must fight for survival. What is more important, they must fight for the survival of the public’s natural resources that support them and make any future possible.

It has never been easy for fishermen, and today more than ever our industry has to fight back on many fronts to keep fishing, fishermen and coastal communities alive and thriving against the juggernaut of development, over-exploitation and greed. However, wherever there are threats to our long-term survival, wherever the resource is threatened with unsustainable practices that would destroy it, we must be there and must take appropriate action to protect our future.

Let’s be blunt. There are a whole lot of people and many major industries (big oil, agribiz and much of the timber industry to name a few) who find commercial fishermen terribly inconvenient to their development plans, and would rather we just went away to die. Unfortunately for them, most of us are real contrary characters. We simply refuse to die!

PCFFA was founded on that refusal to die. PCFFA inherited a great cultural tradition, going back hundreds of years, of fishermen fighting for their survival and winning, often against great odds, major battles over water, fish-killing dams, destructive mining practices, offshore oil development, and over many other cracked brain ideas that would have destroyed our fisheries. When the massive fish-killing dams were proposed for the major rivers of California and the Columbia in the 1930’s and 40’s, it was commercial fishermen who fought hardest and eventually either killed the project or won fish passage and mitigation hatcheries to protect their salmon industry. We also made alliances with likeminded colleagues in the sportfishing industry and with many other interest groups to make it happen. Had commercial fishermen not fought back then, none of us would be fishing salmon now.

More recently, when PCFFA had the audacity to demand that some reasonable portion of the water from the California Central Valley Project be set aside for fish protections instead of it all going to commercial irrigation, the Agribiz lobbyists actually laughed in our faces. What were we scrappy little fishermen doing, making demands of the most powerful political lobby in the nation? Seven years later, in 1992, an 800,000 acre-foot set aside for fish and wildlife became law, and we are gradually winning in the courts against all their well funded efforts to block it.

When we had the arrogance to demand protection of our fisheries and coastlines from massive offshore oil development with its inevitable oil spills, we won again, and got a moratorium, though one that has to be vigilantly defended. When fishermen talked about removing dams and freeing up rivers for salmon, some people still laughed at us, though more warily. Since then we’ve gotten several dams down, and will soon get more destroyed to protect key salmon runs.

The current fight in the Klamath River Basin to obtain much needed water reforms so that 250 miles of closed down Klamath Zone salmon fishery can someday reopen is just the latest in many battles we have to fight (see Fishermen’s News for August 2001, “Why the Klamath Matters” ( Most of us know that we have to fight for our communities and our livelihoods if we are to keep either. Most of us would never crawl away to go gentle into that final good night from which there is no return.

Unfortunately, there are also those within our own industry who are so timid, and so easily intimidated by the aggressive political opposition of our usually much better funded opponents, that they would not only go away willingly, but turn on their fellows in the bargain. It is, however, the Devil’s bargain at best.


It is always a source of puzzlement when we see commercial fishermen forget who they are. We are first and foremost users and defenders of the public marine and salmon resource. If we don’t protect the sustainability of the very fisheries we depend on for our livelihoods, who will? Are you going to depend on Greenpeace to do it for you?

When commercial agribusiness confiscates all the water in a river and forces once booming salmon runs onto the Endangered Species list, should we just smile and say, ‘Hey, we have nothing against farmers, that’s all right with us’? When gigantic timber corporations chop the hell out of salmon bearing watersheds, ignore the laws and silt in whole river systems, should we say, ‘Hey, nothing against loggers, go right ahead’? When this or any other federal administration wants to drill and spill and dump in our key fisheries or crab beds, do we just nod and say it’s just too much trouble to say no? Not a chance! Not if we want to stay alive as an industry and a culture.

Yet we at PCFFA sometimes get flack from those in our own industry for ‘beating up on the farmers,’ or ‘bad-mouthing the loggers’ or ‘being too aggressive’ in the defense of our industry. Let’s be clear: we have nothing against farmers, loggers or oil drillers individually. Most are innocent people caught up in a nasty system and should never be demonized personally. However, fishermen should also NEVER tolerate industrial practices, however well paid for or politically well defended, that are going to ultimately destroy our fisheries, our communities and our own way of life.

Collaborating with the enemy in our own demise unfortunately also has a long tradition. One of our best spokesmen and past Presidents, Nat Bingham, used to rail against what he called ‘The Code of Silence.’ Many of our own people are also now or have been loggers, farmers or worked in other industries whose policies we sometimes oppose. We also have a lot in common with farmers, for instance, ourselves being family food providers. Also in isolated rural communities there is always pressure to get along well with your neighbors and not rock the boat. All this enforces a ‘Code of Silence’ under which fishermen are never supposed to talk back, make any trouble or object in any way when these other industries methodically (and for profit) gradually put us out of business.

Sometimes subservience provides benefits, such as funding for some minor habitat improvement here or there to patch over just a little bit of the rape of yet another salmon watershed or yet another dried up river. These are all small bones intended to shut us up. “To hell with that,” Nat said often, “its time we stuck up for ourselves and called destruction what it is.”

For the last several years of his life, Nat’s motto was: No More Silence. If we are to survive as an industry, if we are to have rivers with salmon, coastlines with groundfish and crabs, or anything like a restored ocean ecosystem, that has to be our motto also. Fishermen will never change anything by always being nice.


There are several reasons why these other industry leaders want fishermen to ‘be nice.’ First of all, and most fundamentally, you as commercial fishermen who care about the resource are simply in their way. Our very existence as an economic interest demanding a clean and healthy ecosystem threatens to spoil their profitable practices of destroying habitat, polluting waterways, drilling for oil, dumping in crab nurseries, making a great deal of money and leaving the economic consequences of all their environmental destruction to be paid by others.

A perfect example is the latest battle in the west coast water wars, the Upper Klamath Basin. For more than 90 years, upper basin irrigators have taken most of the water and said to hell with the fish and downriver fishermen. They profited and everyone else paid the economic price. Today the Klamath River, once the third largest salmon producing river in the whole US west coast, is now down to less than 8% of historic production (most of that hatchery fish), with coho salmon down to only 1% and so depleted that coho finally had to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act to protect them.

And its not only coho that are dying in the Klamath River. Fatal water temperatures and agricultural pollutants that kill coho also kill chinook, steelhead and nearly everything else evolved for what used to be a cold water system. Even Iron Gate Hatchery fails in many years because it must use the same agricultural waste water from the Klamath Irrigation Project that in most years is too little, too hot and too laced with farm chemicals to support salmon. In the face of this disaster, which was not of our own making, last year PCFFA brought suit to try to stave off extinction of salmon throughout the Klamath Basin and get some much needed water back in the river. Those reforms are finally happening. For the first time in Klamath Irrigation Project history, a bottom line minimum amount of water has been held back in the river for salmon as a higher priority than irrigation rights. Unfortunately this all has coincided with a record drought. That, however, is an act of God, not of federal bureaucracies or lawsuits.

The farmers in the Klamath Basin are entitled to federal drought disaster relief, just as any farmer would be anywhere else, and PCFFA has strongly supported and lobbied for that relief. It is not the farmer’s fault that the Bureau of Reclamation promised them far more than it could possibly deliver. It is not their fault they are suffering through a record drought.

However, the Klamath irrigator’s recent noisy political agitation to ‘get all their water back,’ is nothing more than an effort to turn the clock back to the dark days when all the economic consequences of water shortages had to be paid by fishermen and wildlife. This is something that we will not accept.

After 90 years, it is more than past time for the water in the Klamath Basin to be more equitably shared. In this record drought, the worst in the Klamath Basin’s recorded history, the water the farmers are demanding is simply not there. Even had there been no lawsuit, there is so little rainfall this year (about 4 inches) in the upper basin that farming would have still been largely impossible. Though they like to blame everyone else for ‘taking their water,’ unfortunately, all the political posturing and lawsuits and demonstrations in the world will not create more rain. Nor was it their water to begin with, it was water that belongs to and should be used for the public good. The farmers are entitled only to a fair share, not to all of it as they so loudly claim. Even federally subsidized farmers eventually have to learn to live within their means.

The other main reason the people who hate fishermen want you to ‘be nice’ is also rather simple to understand. They don’t really care about you, and they figure they can just push you aside. The easier you are to ignore the easier that can be accomplished. Indeed, when fishermen are weak and disorganized and intimidated, they are always easy prey. However, when fishermen are organized, informed and in their faces, it is much harder to push us aside. Groups like PCFFA arose because there is not only safety in numbers, but a great deal more political strength and clout. The most fundamental reason for supporting your local fishermen’s association is just this – as a small dog on the block, you are far better off having a whole lot of big teeth than no teeth at all. It pays big time to organize.


Nothing ever came easy for fishermen. Commercial fishing families sometimes risk their lives to making a living, work hard and long seasons, and still have to worry about all the mundane tasks of life to boot. It’s sometimes hard to get to meetings, its tedious to write letters to the editor after a long day. It’s also emotionally difficult to take positions that are sometimes unpopular with friends, neighbors and other family food providers. However, the alternative to speaking out is the ultimate extinction of the family fisherman as we know it. For us here at PCFFA, and for most fishermen, their own cultural extinction is not an option.

Nat Bingham also used to remind us that the one thing you must always have to succeed in any political fight is perseverance. Have that and you will ultimately prevail, but without it you will inevitably fail. Just showing up and speaking your mind, just standing up against the slow strangulation of your livelihood, is more than half the battle. As the old English common law maxim goes, “Those who do not object are said to consent.” Our job at PCFFA is to make sure they hear our dissent loud and clear and cannot get around us, push us around or remain in denial.

Never forget who you are: a commercial fisherman. You don’t have to look out for the agribusiness industry, you don’t have to worry about the timber or petroleum corporations, they have plenty of money and highly paid lobbyists to look out for their own interests. Commercial fishermen have to look out for themselves. Otherwise, you can rest assured that no one else will.


It’s never all about confrontation, of course. Sometimes we must confront, many more times we can work in collaborative alliances on common issues. Sometimes our opponents are later our allies. Sometimes vice versa. Although its always better to have a good and professional relationship, you can even hate each other’s guts, personally, so long as that does not prevent developing alliances on issues that are of mutual concern. We should always use the tools that work best.

We could not have accomplished many of our successes as an industry without a healthy mix of both collaboration and confrontation. However, the bottom line is that we can never just roll over and play dead. Nor can we ignore other sectors’ policies and practices, however long standing, that threaten our existence or the existence of the very resources we depend upon.

Collaboration is always a good goal, if possible, but the possibility of win-win solutions through compromise is often a myth. Compromise can sometimes work to everyone’s advantage, but there are some fights that just have to be won. You cannot compromise by half a dam, for instance, nor can you compromise on extinction. Sometimes you just have to beat the bastards. They don’t have to like you, just respect you. Then you can negotiate as equals.


Of course, playing to win also carries a heavy moral obligation to assist the loser graciously and compassionately. In the Klamath Basin, for instance, PCFFA staff have already invested a huge amount of time and money trying to get disaster relief for drought-stricken farmers, and also to craft long-term solutions to the water over-appropriation crisis that will prevent in the future the kind of disaster the current record drought has brought and that also allows farmers and fish to co-exist. Eventually we will be working with the farmers, agencies and any others who will work with us to find the federal and state funds to make the necessary changes in ways that allow that transition to be as painless as possible. The victor always has a similar moral obligation to the vanquished.

Nevertheless, water reforms are inevitable because the ‘farmers take it all’ way of doing things in the past is inherently unstable. The Klamath Basin is hardly the only place in the west coast where rivers have been dewatered and salmon have been nearly destroyed, only the most recently discovered by the media. Difficult and sometimes painful changes in water policy are inevitable everywhere because the status quo is simply unsustainable. When those changes come, we remain always ready to work with people of good will toward a sustainable future. Change, though inevitable, does not always have to be painful.

Ultimately, PCFFA and its efforts to protect fisheries are about securing a future for commercial fishermen, not about protecting the interests of farmers, loggers, ranchers or oil companies. Whenever those other interest groups try, carelessly or deliberately, to shut us up and make us go away, fishermen need never be apologetic about defending their right to exist. Futures are only given to those who work for them.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) is the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families. Pietro Parravano is PCFFA’s President, Zeke Grader is its Executive Director and Glen Spain is Northwest Regional Director. PCFFA can be reached at its San Francisco office at: PO Box 29370, SF, CA USA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080; its Northwest Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR USA 97440-3370, (541)689-2000; or by email at: PCFFA’s web site is at: