The warm morning sun beat down on Mike McCorkle, a tanned, seasoned commercial fisherman who on Wednesday carefully brushed varnish on the deck of his 36-foot boat docked in the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Stranded was more like it, since 75-year-old McCorkle hasn’t been able to catch halibut, sea cucumbers or anything else in his trawl net for nearly two weeks because of the latest winter storm.
Sand has clogged the harbor entrance since then, and a delay in dredging — which was supposed to be complete by now — has left McCorkle and other local fishermen with large vessels stuck and struggling financially, most likely until early next week.
That’s why on Wednesday, when McCorkle should’ve been out on open ocean, he uncertainly puttered around the white and yellow-striped "Pieface" — a boat name he inherited but can’t change for fear of bad luck.
“We just had about 10 days of beautiful weather, and we can’t go out,” McCorkle lamented. “There was a chance there to make some money. That was a bigger than normal storm. It kind of stirs everything up. The channel got narrower, narrower and narrower.”
With 61 years of experience, McCorkle has seen the harbor closed before, even been stuck like some of the small boats that unsuccessfully tried to traverse the channel this week at high tide.
The difference this year, fishermen say, is that the sand-socked harbor could’ve been avoided altogether if dredging was done last fall.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which typically dredges the harbor twice a year, did not dredge last fall for the first time in decades because of a contract dispute with the construction company that provides the necessary equipment for the process, which is paid for by the federal government, said Karl Treiberg, city waterfront facilities manager.
So, when the worst storm in six years struck, the harbor was left especially vulnerable, Treiberg said.
“It’s just a coincidence of not doing the fall dredging and this was a very large swell,” he said. “This is a good lesson learned for everybody.”
Treiberg said dredging, which began last Saturday before a custom-made electrical component failed and postponed the process, coincided with the usual spring schedule. He said the process would resume Thursday night, with full passage expected by Sunday.
Many commercial fishermen, including Stephanie Mutz, couldn't afford to wait that long.
Mutz, a sea urchin diver, braved the channel at high tide Wednesday with her 18-footer so she could keep up with seafood orders from local restaurants.
The risky strategy works for some smaller boats, but also means Mutz can be out for only 12 hours instead of the typical 18.
“That’s frustrating and nerve-wracking,” she said. “But I have to go. You’ve just got to aim for the beach side of the buoys. Cross your fingers and go slow, especially when your boat is your livelihood. It’s out of our control, but it’s embarrassing to admit that.
“It’s why it’s called fishing and not catching. Fishing is already uncertain, and we don’t need this, too.”
Veteran lobster fisherman Chris Voss considered himself lucky that all he had to do was collect his traps before lobster season ends next week.
Some traps must be retrieved from beaches, where they washed up after the storm.
“We have to work around the weather,” Voss said. “My wife’s had to deal with it 30 years. It’s a challenge for your family. We’re an important part of the city’s economy, and we’re an important part of the harbor’s life.”
Halibut season closes Friday, a fact McCorkle and others try to forget while they wait for freedom and worry about farm fish from Asia swooping into their market.
“A lot,” McCorkle said of how much income he’s already lost. “We’re sitting here. It impacts us, it impacts (the seller) and it impacts the people he sells them to.”