Feeling the love at the Berkeley Pier.
To walk the Berkeley Pier on any given day is a study in impromptu community. No fishing license is required to send a line into the Bay, and people flock from all over for a cheap day of family fun or—for those down on their luck—a daily meal. Exemplifying the Bay Area’s live-and-let-live, love-thy-neighbor social values, the Berkeley Pier may be one of the most egalitarian spots in the East Bay. Mandarin is spoken alongside Spanish, grizzled old men stare out toward San Francisco in reflective silence, teenagers jostle playfully, and mothers send turkey necks into the water for crab. The pier is a microcosm of the East Bay itself, a surprising, organic community built on sustenance, self-reliance, and reflection.
Unfortunately, the very hands-off attitude that makes the pier a hotspot for diversity may also have something to do with lax enforcement of fishing and safety regulations. In response, a group of accidental community activists want to make sure that their beloved pier preserves its character while also maintaining the fish population for generations of fishermen to come.
Robert Gardner of the United Pier and Shore Anglers of California is unassuming in stature, but he’s got his eye to the horizon. That is, when it’s not on his motionless fishing pole. A videographer from El Cerrito, Gardner, a lanky, African-American man, is a lifelong fisherman. “I’ve been fishing this pier for 43 years,” he says. “When I was a kid, I’d spend a day out here and leave with a bucket full of smelt.” He gazes forlornly out to the water. “That doesn’t happen anymore and it worries me.”
The pier begins to fill up with its usual mix of Sunday fishermen—homeless people looking for a meal, couples from the hills crabbing for fun, and laid-back fishing buddies blasting mariachi music, ready to net some perch. Gardner is joined this morning by a group of friends, a mix of pier regulars. They all met online, through the pierfishing.com community message boards, a place where pier fishers all over California meet to talk shop.
Hans Jones, a jolly, ruddy gas station clerk from Danville, helps his 10-year-old son, Hans “Bailey” Jones of San Jose, cast his line. Jackson Hayes, a high school student from El Cerrito, baits with intense concentration. Kate Schultz, a legal assistant from Oakland, is the only woman of the bunch and she’s outfitted with an iPhone with a tide application and military camo (“It’s not that I’m trying to hide from the fish,” she laughs, “It’s that these are all-weather clothes.”). A cooler waits at her feet. “I caught more fish than my husband last year,” she says, with clear relish. “I like to eat.”
Brian Linebarger, a real estate agent from Richmond, wears a baseball cap and a light beard and—like Gardner—says he’s fished this pier since childhood. When it comes to fishing in the Bay Area, he tells me, most serious fishermen go out on their boats and miss the opportunity for dry land fishing right in front of them. “It’s an overlooked gem,” he says.
On the other hand, the best part of the pier—that you don’t need a fishing license or expensive equipment to have a full day of fishing fun—is also its biggest problem. “People need to know the rules and regulations because it’s becoming overfished,” Linebarger says. “The other day I walked by a guy who had a small live shark on the pier, ready to cut it open. I walked over, grabbed the shark, and threw it back into the water before he could say anything. It was way under the 36-inch regulation.”
Gardner nods in agreement. “It’s what you put back that matters. A good sportsman plays the game right.” They watch Bailey Jones throw his line out. “We’re doing what we can to preserve the sport,” Linebarger says. “Because what we really want is for our kids and their kids to be able to continue to enjoy it.”
The regulars are more than Sunday fishermen; they are citizens advocating fiercely for the future of their piers. Gardener’s passion led him to become a board member for the United Pier and Shore Anglers of California, a grassroots organization devoted to maintaining shore and pier angling opportunities in the state through legislation, education, and outreach. Current projects include creating a fishing line recycling program, participating in coastal cleanup days, and attending the California Department of Fish and Game meetings on behalf of anglers, who are often lower income and, therefore, underrepresented.
Ken Jones, president of the group, is also owner of pierfishing.com and a former Pinole resident (he currently lives in Fresno). He has personally fished piers up and down California and his encyclopedic knowledge of the craft has earned him a lot of respect among other fishermen. “The Berkeley Pier was my regular fishing spot from 1970 to ’79,” he says. “It was the first public pier in California under the Wildlife Conservation Board in the ’50s. At 3,000 feet out, it is the longest public pier in the state. I call it the grandfather of all public piers.”
Public piers in California now populate the length of the coast and their presence has produced a new breed of fishermen. Jones calls them, affectionately, “the proletariats of fishing society”—people without access to motorboats, shiny gear, and glossy fishing magazines. Jones’s pierfishing.com connects them through tips about bait, facts about any given pier’s history, and social events like the annual Mud Marlin Derby, held every May at the Berkeley Pier.
And so they gather, from the San Clemente Pier, where shark anglers arrive in heavy gear, to Seacliff State Beach Pier on Monterey Bay, where the nibbling croaker can be secondary in interest to the weddings often performed in the old cement Navy ship at the end of the pier. And it makes perfect sense that the popular, graffiti-covered Berkeley Pier—crowded with Cal students and families, spectacular in its view of San Francisco—is where it all started.
Jones is the impromptu leader of these ragtag hobbyists, a man who cares about his fellow fishermen because they are more than Saturday afternoon strangers—they are a community. His concerns extend beyond overfishing into health issues. “People eat fish off the pier, which can be toxic. There are definitely people supplementing their diets with local-caught fish and that may not be safe. Some species are healthier than others. You need to know how to clean and cook them. The United Pier and Shore Anglers are putting a lot of effort into educating people about this, but we run into language issues, cultural norms, and believability issues. It’s complex.”
Though close-knit, the world of pier fishing is hardly a small segment of the East Bay. Jones cites the Wildlife Conservation Board’s estimate that the Berkeley Pier sees about 150 people, on average, per day. “There are Ivy League grads but most of the Pier Rat Nation aren’t rich at all,” he says. “The pier provides a home for the homeless.”
A quick survey of the bulletin boards near the pier confirms Gardner’s assertion that Fish and Game is pretty hands-off, rarely posting regulations. That leaves it up to this volunteer team of dedicated fishermen to make sure that their pier has enough fish for everyone. “Knowing the person you fish next to is the greatest way to get information out,” Gardner says. “Each one, teach one. Through word of mouth people will know the rules.”
“We’d like to eventually run seminars on ethical angling,” Linebarger adds. “They change the catch limits so often.”
Meanwhile, a kid wanders up to Bailey to ask him if he’s caught anything. He hasn’t, but Bailey seems perfectly content just to watch his dad and the other fishermen chat as the sun burns off the fog to reveal San Francisco across the water. “I love fishing because you get to fight something,” Bailey announces gleefully.
“I caught my first fish here,” Linebarger says, reflectively. “I watched all three of my kids catch their first fish here, too.” Bailey grins, part of a club that—with the help of Gardner, Linebarger, Jones, and his dad—will hopefully extend generations beyond them all.
Thomas Page McBee, a former Oakland resident now living in Rhode Island, is the 2009 recipient of the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award for Nonfiction from The San Francisco Foundation. McBee’s work has been featured most recently in The New York Times, Salon.com, Ironing Board Collective, the SF Weekly’s arts and culture blog, Bitch magazine (online), Hot Metal Bridge, the Bold Italic, and on KQED.