As squid fishermen and lobster trappers prepare for the next phase in their annual relocation from Ventura to northern waters in search of seasonal fish, the fate of a long-time storage location is in the air, leaving captains to wonder if they’ll have a place to store supplies until their return.
The facility, known as the Ventura Harbor Commercial Fisherman’s Storage, sits on land owned by Ventura Harbor Storage, LLC., which has a ground lease with the Ventura Port District. The District holds a sub-lease with Harbor Boat & Storage, which acts as landlord and has managed the property for 25 years.
Come June, the lease will expire and fishermen are worried that it won’t be renewed before they have to leave for the season within the next few weeks. The property owner has asked that the District replace up to half of 80 containers that have corroded in the marine environment and to repave an asphalt parking lot as stipulations for a lease renewal.
Several local fishermen and lobster trappers let the Ventura Harbor Board of Port Commissioners know of their anxiety at a board meeting held on Wednesday, March 20. Without the storage, they collectively agreed, it will be exceedingly difficult to continue operations out of the Ventura Harbor.
Forty-four fishing boats store lobster pots, nets and other gear at the storage facility. Of these, 35 solely capture squid. Squid fishermen utilize purse seine vessels, deploying massive nets to capture squid. When squid season is over, the fishermen require a large storage area to keep and mend their nets. If the June 30 deadline is reached without an agreement, the fishermen attending the board meeting said that they would need to know no later than mid-April so that arrangements can be made.
Oscar Peña, general manager of the Ventura Port District, says that negotiations are currently underway and that he expects a deal to be reached within the next two months, though it can be complicated with three parties involved.
“I know it’s starting to get very close to their deadline but I don’t think they have anything to worry about,” said Peña.
When the lease was first realized in the mid-1990s, the California State Coastal Conservancy awarded a grant to the Port District for approximately $150,000 to purchase containers and to provide fencing and improvements on the property for fishermen to utilize. Peña says that in 2018, the District met with the Conservancy at the property and was encouraged to request additional funding.
Peña says that the District is currently working on an application for a $200,000 grant through the Conservancy to be submitted in August when next the Conservancy meets, several months after the lease expiration.
“That’s really the only challenge at this point, but the Port District is committed to making those improvements and we’ll certainly work out with Ventura Harbor Storage in a new lease some obligation to assure them that those improvements will be made for the mutual benefit of the commercial fishermen,” said Peña.
Mike Wagner, owner of Andria’s Seafood and long-time Ventura Harbor businessman, says that he only learned of the upcoming deadline four weeks ago, after a commercial lobster trapper informed him. Wagner says that they, too, weren’t well informed of the matter.
“Sam from across the harbor made that statement when he got up and talked at the Board Meeting that they have known about this problem for over a year and nobody did anything about it until the 11th hour, which is where we are now,” said Wagner. Wagner says that many of the fishermen who use the facility are currently in Washington, Oregon and traveling to Alaska for the upcoming season and that they aren’t aware of the current situation.
“You have guys who are offsite who have gear stored here and don’t even know that there is a problem because the Port District has never told them that the lease is going away and that they may have to move their gear,” said Wagner.
Jean Getchell, Port Commission commissioner and secretary, visited the facility in early March to better understand the situation. Getchell says that the commercial fishermen at the harbor are important for many reasons and that she hopes the situation is resolved sooner rather than later.
“They’re a really important economic partner in the harbor. I recognize that, and as I continue to tell people, you can have dinner anywhere in town, but you can’t sail along Main Street,” said Getchell.
Another issue regarding storage is the lack thereof. Should the lease not be renewed or the property be converted into something other than storage, alternative storage options are few and far between. Getchell says that a location on Ventura Avenue had been considered in the worst-case scenario — but with it being several miles from the harbor, transporting to and from the facility would be difficult for fishermen who may not have the proper vehicles to do so.
Between the Port of Hueneme, the Channel Islands Harbor and even in Santa Barbara, few, if any, storage facilities exist that could compare to the Ventura Harbor location.
Peña says that the District is “all in” to come up with an agreement between the three parties involved.
“We are going to reach a successful conclusion in getting a new lease with them primarily because we’ve been their tenant for the last 25 years and it’s worked really well for that organization, worked really well for the Port District and worked well for the commercial fishermen,” said Peña.
Wagner stressed the importance commercial fishing has on not only the harbor, but the entire city of Ventura, citing economic output known as a multiplier effect.
“One million dollars of fish is worth $6 million to the city of Ventura,” said Wagner, noting that fishermen shop locally when using the Ventura Harbor’s facilities. “That’s how this multiplier works and how valuable it is to the community and most people don’t even realize that.”