There was a time not long ago when, to most commercial fishermen, the mention of the name "Coast Guard" evoked the image of a sleek, white cutter knifing its way through towering seas toward a rescue. The Guard was the fisherman's friend, ready and willing to save his life. But times have changed dramatically. Last May 19, California salmon fisherman Jim Blaes drew a line in the waters of Santa Cruz Harbor, at the northern reach of Monterey Bay, and dared the Coast Guard to cross it. Blaes claimed he'd "had a gutful" of the Coast Guard's surprise safety boardings, and refused to allow officers from the 100-foot cutter Chico aboard his 36-foot Helja unless they left their guns behind.
The Coasties refused his demand, resulting in a tense two-day standoff. During the impasse, the Chico, accompanied by a 40-foot patrol boat and a helicopter, shadowed Blaes as he negotiated via cellular phone, granted press interviews, and caught some salmon. At one point he told his pursuers, "I think enough of the U.S. Constitution to give up my life for it. If you think enough of it to violate it, then come ahead." Finally the Guard backed off, turning the matter over to the Department of Justice for legal action.
"I was sick of the Coast Guard harassing me," says Blaes, a lifelong fisherman who was armed during the incident with a gun he reportedly uses to protect himself from sharks. "I've been boarded 40 times in the past nine years, and I've repeatedly told them the boardings violate my Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches undertaken without suspicion that a crime has been committed. We've hassled plenty over the issue, and frankly, I thought this time things might turn violent."
Blaes is not alone in his exasperation. Many fishermen say the Guard, once their ally, now exerts itself as much to disrupt lives as to save them. What happened to make the Guard go from heroism to harassment? The war on drugs. In the 1980s, every fishing vessel became a suspect (or "target," in Coast Guard parlance), and heavily armed young Coasties added a new dimension to fishermen's timeless concern about the dangers at sea. Within the decade, that same zealotry helped mold the Guard's belligerent at-sea enforcement of new vessel-safety regulations. Now fishermen who have always trusted the Coast Guard have also learned to fear it.
The Coast Guard's heritage--one still honored by most of its 36,000 members--is saving lives. Its creed remains, "We have to go out, but we don't have to come back." Consider, for instance, Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, a sentry post at the mouth of the serpentine Columbia River dividing Washington and Oregon. A tiny "Cape D." crew tends the Columbia River Bar, where west-running river and east-running Pacific Ocean roil together over a shallow sandpit, pushing waves to 30 feet. There, the Coasties crash to sea in 41-foot "rollover" rescue boats designed to right themselves after capsizing, snatching disabled mariners from the deep. Assignment to the Cape D. rescue squad remains the most sought-after job in the entire Coast Guard--a testament to the valor of the smallest of the nation's armed forces. Fishermen in many regions applaud the Guard's search-and-rescue efforts. "Nobody's better at it; I feel as safe as I ever did knowing they're around," says Florida shrimper Eric Schmidt. "Recently, lightning struck a friend of mine's boat. Everything was fried--batteries, pumps, even the engine's starter motor. He was sinking, but the Coast Guard arrived in 20 minutes. Saved him and the boat. They were awesome."
On Labor Day, skilled Guardsmen rescued several fishermen whose boats capsized 100 miles west of Eureka, California, when a surprise storm swept through the region's tuna fleet. "We save lives, plain and simple--that's our job," says Cmdr. Bryant Weaver of Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay, whose helicopters yanked the terrified fishermen from open seas.
Search and Bust
During the past 20 years, however, the Coast Guard has undertaken a slew of law enforcement duties--enough, in fact, to consume nearly half its projected $3.9 billion budget for 1997. "There are just a lot more laws to enforce these days, including drug interdiction and alien smuggling, plus regulations that state and federal agencies impose to conserve fish stocks," notes Lt. Fred Myer, a staff officer in the Guard's Washington, D.C., law enforcement division.
The first big shift in Coast Guard policy and dollars, from search-and-rescue to search-and- bust, came in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration implemented a draconian "Zero Tolerance" program aimed at interdicting ocean-going drug runners. Under the Z.T. plan, a vessel owner could have his boat and fish seized if anyone aboard possessed so much as a joint--with or without the captain's knowledge. The result: Skippers became cops too, forced to interrogate the crew and, at times, search their personal belongings. This further stressed an industry that, between difficult weather, increased regulation, uncertain markets, and depressed fish stocks, could ill afford it.
It also cost suspect fishermen a pile of money, even in cases where boats and gear were seized but later returned when the feds couldn't make a case. Fueling the cops-and-robbers Z.T. fiasco, fishermen who failed to pay a fine if found guilty of a violation had their vessels and/or equipment turned over to the Customs Service, if guilty of a drug violation, or to the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the case of a fishing violation, to be auctioned off. Big drug busts made big news, especially in Coast Guard District 7. That's a watery highway of 1.8 million square miles, stretching from the southeast U.S. coast to Puerto Rico, transited by shrimp boats and small freighters smuggling pot or cocaine from Latin America. It was not uncommon during the early 1980s for deep-bellied shrimpers to be caught with up to 20 tons of grass. The same held true for coke; even in 1995, the Coast Guard seized over 18,000 kilograms of it in District 7.
At some point in the hunt, an authoritarian Z.T. mentality came to permeate the Coast Guard's ranks. Boarding crews seemed to live for the bust, often losing sight of personal rights in their effort to catch drug runners. Cutters displayed marijuana- and coca-leaf decals on the sides of their cabins, like notches in a pistol butt, as their hunt for drug smugglers became competitive. Meanwhile, fishing vessels everywhere--especially off Florida and California--became suspects, as well as slow-moving targets.
A Recipe for Abuse
Predictably, problems arose. "Zero Tolerance, combined with the Coast Guard's attitude, created a recipe for abuse and harassment," notes David Paul Horan, a maritime lawyer in Key West, Florida. "One particular case comes to mind. In 1988, an 80-foot shrimper belonging to a man named David Phelps was boarded off the Florida coast, supposedly to look for drugs or stowaways. But within minutes, the Coasties were going through every compartment on board. Finally, at the bottom a one-foot-by-two-foot trash can, beneath a gooey pile of spit tobacco, they found four marijuana seeds. Bam, busted, boat seized--just like that. The whole thing was so outrageous that we had to take up the matter with officials in Washington, D.C., to get it dropped." California fisherman Steve Kelly offers this bizarre Z.T. tale: "I was fishing for rock cod near Point Conception (near Santa Barbara), driving in circles, zig-zags and figure-eights, staring at my depth sounder, looking for fish. Meanwhile, I could hear a conversation on my marine radio between a Coast Guard patrol boat and a Coast Guard helicopter. They were discussing the suspicious activities of a certain boat--my boat. Finally, they called me and told me to prepare for a boarding. Then, suddenly, the patrol boat radioed for a medical airlift for one of its own crewmen. Apparently, he accidentally shot himself in the ear while readying his weapon for the boarding." Undaunted, Kelly says, the Coasties persevered. "They radioed for a 90-foot cutter from Marina Del Rey to come search my boat once I anchored. The cutter ran 150 miles to the area, accosted us in the middle of the night and made us huddle on the back deck in our skivvies while they searched my boat. All they found was fish."
Often, even fish couldn't stop a good drug search. "One time, a boarding crew took a long, skinny aluminum pole and poked it repeatedly into bins of shrimp aboard my boat," says one Texas shrimper. "When they began, I had a boatload of $7-a-pound whole shrimp. When they finished, I had $1-a-pound shrimp pieces. There was no need to do it, since I was at the dock, waiting to unload. All they had to do was wait a few minutes and watch the shrimp come out of the hold on a conveyor."
Adds Florida fisherman Eric Schmidt, "The Coast Guard pulled 600 pounds of grouper out of my fish hold and laid them on deck in the blazing sun while they looked for dope. When they were through, the fish were cooked. Who pays for that? I do."