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Originally published Monday, January 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Local fisherman leading fight against change in Port's storage sheds

A local fisherman, who led a previous fight against Port of Seattle rules, is at it again — this time opposing Port proposals to tax some fishermen and take away storage space they now use.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Pete Knutson is at it again — pushing, prodding and protesting at the Port of Seattle.

A local fisherman with a doctorate who teaches anthropology at Seattle Central Community College, Knutson clashed very publicly with Port officials in 2001 when he led the fight against allowing yachts at Fishermen's Terminal. That battle landed him prominent roles in Port surveillance videotapes and a documentary film that aired on KCTS-TV.

Now he's back, agitating against Port proposals to tax some fishermen and take away storage space they now use.

Some fishermen say the Port should be providing a supportive home for the Seattle fishing fleet and not threatening their business. The move is also rekindling years-old suspicions that the Port wants to turn the space over to developers.

A Port spokesman strongly denies any plans to redevelop the property and says Knutson is overdramatizing the conflict to pit the powerful Port against the underdog fishermen.

But Port Commissioner Lloyd Hara sympathizes with Knutson and wants a public debate on the proposals that Port staff wanted to be quietly enacted early this year. Commissioners now say they will discuss the proposals in the coming months.

"For some on Port staff, Pete can be a pain in the neck, but given a fair intellectual set of arguments, he probably gets the best of staff most of the time, in my opinion," Hara wrote to another commissioner in an e-mail last month.

Dave Harsila, chairman of the Port's Fishermen's Terminal Advisory Committee, also sides with Knutson. Harsila calls the storage plan a "drastic measure" that would irk many fishermen.

It would require fishermen to remove all their gear from 252 Port-owned storage sheds while the Port would take out loftlike platforms fishermen installed to create more shelf space.

The "net sheds" are 30-foot-tall lockers once used for hanging fishing nets to dry. But old cotton nets were long ago replaced by synthetic ones that don't need drying. Over the years, fishermen built platforms up the shed walls so they could store tons of gear.

Port officials say the sheds are unsafe because the shelves block fire sprinklers.

"We're not very happy now," said Harsila, who owns a 34-foot gill-netting boat and has rented a shed for 30 years. "The locker is almost half of my business. If I have to look for other storage, it may give me pause as to whether I can continue in this business."

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Heartland Study

Fishermen and others suspect the changes would signal a different future for the shed area, which occupies prime property in Magnolia, just west of the Ballard Bridge.

The Port has had an eye on redeveloping the property. It hired the Heartland consulting firm in 2001 to look at converting terminal land to office and warehouse space.

The Port's preface to the consultant's study said the "only thing that would trigger redevelopment of the kind mentioned in the Heartland Study would be vacancies in the net sheds, which we don't have at this time."

Knutson says the Port's shed proposal amounts to a "de facto" eviction. "If they make the infrastructure dysfunctional, fishermen won't be able to operate here," he says.

Port spokesman Peter McGraw insists the Port isn't plotting to evict fishermen and convert the sheds to offices or condos. The Port needs fishermen to clear their sheds only for a week, McGraw said, while the shelves are yanked out. After that, the fishermen would move back in, but the space would be much smaller.

Knutson's concerns about the Heartland study are unfounded, he said: "It is a red herring. The Heartland study is not Port policy. The Port is committed to maintaining the shed lockers as part of the economic engine of the north Pacific fleet. They have to be safe though."

Peter Philips, publisher of Fishermen's News and a member of the terminal advisory panel, agrees.

"The net-sheds issue is a valid one. The Port is acting at the recommendation of its risk manager. I don't think this has anything to with redevelopment potential," Philips said.

He stressed he doesn't want to be pitted against Knutson or other fishermen in a personal battle. But he said "the Heartland study that Knutson brings up over and over is old news."

Others still aren't convinced.

Hara believes Fishermen's Terminal will one day be redeveloped. So does John Adams, who runs an insurance company at the terminal and serves on the terminal's advisory committee.

$25 fee

Knutson believes the second Port proposal he's fighting is aimed at punishing him.

It would impose a daily $25 fee on fishermen who sell smoked salmon, salmon jerky and other processed products from their boats.

Knutson runs Loki Fish with his wife and two sons. He is the only one at Fishermen's Terminal now selling such products from his boat, the Njord.

Knutson, who also sells through local markets and restaurants, argues the Port should be promoting direct sales as a way to help fishermen — who mostly sell to big processing companies — tap into the growing popularity of locally produced foods.

"The future is catching fewer fish, but making more money with those fish," Knutson said. "It's good for the public to meet the producers. It's the same impetus pushing the farmers markets."

McGraw maintains the Port isn't targeting Knutson. The new fee is intended to "level the playing field" with the terminal's Wild Salmon Seafood Market, which rents Port property and pays a percentage of its sales to the Port, a Port official told commissioners in an e-mail late last year. Market owner Paula Cassidy has strongly denied that she wants a tax on fishermen.

McGraw said the fees would be similar to what farmers markets charge. "We thought it was a good business model," he said. "A lot of this is up in the air right now. The commission still has to decide what to do. I don't want to get ahead of them."

Sequel

Knutson's latest tussle with the Port is being recorded by filmmaker B.J. Bullert, who made an hourlong documentary in 2005 about Fishermen's Terminal that centered on Knutson.

Bullert, a Seattle native and faculty member at Antioch University, said she's making a sequel featuring Knutson, who in his proletariat-professor style, is comfortable rallying fishermen on the docks and writing policy papers for commissioners and the media.

"This is about the devaluing of people whose hands bring us the food. The Port ought to value small-boat fishermen trying to make a living outside the corporate food industry," she said.

Through public-records requests for her earlier film, Bullert obtained video tapes from a Port security camera that was trained for hours on Knutson selling smoked salmon. (A Port official defended the taping in an e-mail at the time, saying Knutson was then violating Port policy prohibiting the sale of processed fish.) She also obtained a Port e-mail calling Knutson "crybaby Pete."

Commissioner Hara hopes the Port changes course. "We should be working in the opposite direction to make it easier for small fishermen to sustain themselves."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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