SEATTLE — A proposal to lease empty slips to pleasure craft at the terminal that has moored the city's commercial fishing fleet for more than 85 years has brought furious resistance from activist fishermen, who fear their salty blue-collar world could be overwhelmed by yacht people.
With Puget Sound salmon in decline and cheaper farmed fish swamping the market, nearly a third of the 371 small-boat slips at Fishermen's Terminal are empty.
The Port of Seattle, in the middle of a $35 million overhaul of the sprawling terminal, wants to lease about 50 of the 114 empty slips to pleasure craft at higher rates that could help keep moorage fees low for working boats.
But fishermen want no part of the proposal, which comes up for a final vote before the port commission Tuesday.
"This is one of the last places in Seattle where people with grease under their fingernails can feel comfortable," says gill-netter Pete Knutson, 49, who teaches anthropology at Seattle Central Community College when he's not fishing on his boat.
Fishing boats will always have priority at the terminal, port officials say. If a fishing boat needs a slip and all are filled, a pleasure craft will leave.
Port Commission Chairman Clare Nordquist says the higher moorage fees for pleasure craft — they'll pay about double the $3.30-a-foot rate paid by active fishing vessels smaller than 80 feet — are not sought to pay for the overhaul.
The port is committed to the work already, he says. "We need to have boats there, we need to have it full."
Knutson challenges use of the vacancy rate as a measure of success.
"Those boats are making money when they're gone," he said.
Knutson cites a recent study by a consulting firm showing the terminal supports 5,306 jobs — directly or indirectly — and generates more than $246 million in wages and $161 million business revenue. That's well above the showing so far for the port's swanky new cruise-ship dock, he says.
But he worries about gentrification. The terminal could allow up to 49 percent recreational vessels without a zoning change.
"So you get all those yachts in here, and then all of a sudden it's not much of a leap to build an office building over here, or build a condo," Knutson said.
Port officials adamantly deny condos will ever be allowed.
The terminal's mission, defined soon after the railroad land was donated to the city in 1913, is to serve the North Pacific fishing fleet based there. That has not changed, they say.
Not all the mariners who dock there are as adamant about recreational boats as Knutson.
Third-generation fisherman Jack Knutsen — who calls himself semi-retired after 49 years, though he still has two boats here — sees no alternative.
"You've got a 33 percent vacancy rate here, when every other marina has a waiting list a mile long," he said. "It seems to me we're going to have to fill those spaces with somebody, otherwise moorage is going to go up for existing tenants.
"I can't say I'm in favor of bringing in pleasure boats," he added. "I just see it as inevitable."
Knutson says he'd like the port to follow through on a plan discussed in the 1980s and install a direct-sale facility alongside, where consumers could buy fresh fish off-loaded from boats.
Nordquist says a direct-sale facility has not been written off, but he's dubious about its prospects.
Some boats carry defiant signs: "Yachts don't feed people, fishermen do."
But the protest banners are far outnumbered by for-sale signs at the freshwater terminal on the Salmon Bay Waterway, which links Puget Sound with Lake Union.
Over the next six years, the port plans to rebuild and reconfigure the five small-boat docks — work that will reduce the number of boats that can moor there.
Knutson says that will eliminate the vacancy problem, but Nordquist disagrees.
Knutson contends some fishermen have left the terminal in protest because the aging docks are in disrepair.
"It's a great dock," says Nordquist, who attributes the vacancy rate to the region's declining small-boat salmon fishery.
There were 1,900 state licenses for the Puget Sound gillnet fishery in 1981, and less than 300 are in use today, port spokesman Mick Shultz says. At issue are fish farms, declining Puget Sound stocks and the 1970s Boldt decision allotting half the state's fish harvest to tribal fishermen.
"We're not displacing anything in the fishing industry. If you're filling an empty slip, what's the displacement?" Nordquist says.