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San Diego Bait Barge Moves To Temporary Home Near Harbor Island

Video by Katie Schoolov

A venerable San Diego Bay business is moving this month thanks to a long overdue Navy Pier upgrade near Shelter Island. The Everingham Brothers Bait Barge won’t let the disruption keep it from feeding San Diego’s lucrative sport-fishing fleet. KPBS business and environment reporter Erik Anderson has the story.

A venerable San Diego Bay business is relocating this month thanks to a long overdue Navy Pier upgrade near Shelter Island.

— A venerable San Diego Bay business is relocating this month thanks to a long overdue Navy Pier upgrade near Shelter Island.

It's an old story: The noise will scare the fish.

The Everingham Brothers bait barge has fed San Diego's sport-fishing fleet for decades. The low-slung bait pens are strung together by chains and tied to buoys anchored on the bay floor.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Everingham Bros. Bait Barge off the coast of Point Loma

The business has a low profile from a distance. But up close, there is no mistaking the product: Big block letters spell "Live Bait" on a huge, sun-washed sign.

Most recreational boats that fish the ocean buy bait at this floating depot. So does every boat in San Diego's commercial sport-fishing fleet. Now they're going to follow the barge to a new, temporary home nearby.

"We're crowding up all the sardines, here," Mike Ramirez said, as he dipped a long pole with a net on the end into a pen full of fish. "Crowd them all up so we can scoop them out with our nets."

Ramirez captains the Excel, one of the fleet's larger vessels. He dipped his net into the water and lifted out some sardines.

"(We) take a small scoop; anywhere from 10 to 15 baits per scoop, and put them in the bigger bait tanks on board," Ramirez said.

He doesn't trust this job to anyone else. No captain does. Lively bait doesn't guarantee good fishing, but bad bait will ruin a trip. And anything that could disrupt the reliable supply of bait is of concern to captains like Ramirez.

"You want to be as gentle as possible with the bait because you want it to live," Ramirez said.

The Excel is leaving on a 15-day, long-range trip. He needs bait that lives that long or longer.

The scoop-and-dump routine is well rehearsed. As soon as Ramirez lifts out a scoop, the net is taken by a crew member, dumped into the bait hold and another net is in his hands. It takes two hours to fill up the bait holds with mackerel, sardines and anchovies. Ramirez can't imagine having to catch his own bait, or having to do without.

"To try to fish for tuna and wahoo and all the pelagic fish we do, you need live bait to fish for it," Ramirez said. "You can catch it other ways, with artificial bait, poppers and so forth, but its very difficult. Live bait just makes our jobs a lot easier."

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Buzz Brizendine stands in front of his boat, the Prowler.

Buzz Brizendine is spending a lot of time now getting ready for the coming fishing season. He's painting his boat, the Prowler. He's been running one- and two-day trips out of San Diego Bay since 1979.

"If we had to get our own bait, there just aren't enough hours in a day," Brizendine said. "Because in the summer, when we're fishing every single day, we leave at 10 p.m. and we'll run all night, and be on the grounds in the morning. (We) fish until afternoon. And then (it's) back to the landing...and do it all over again."

Federal officials estimate Southern California sport-fishing boats carry 1 million passengers each year. San Diego gets a fair chunk of that business.

"In the summer there are 50 to 75 of this class boat that fish every single day," Brizendine said. "And then there's quite a private fleet of smaller boats that also fish, and depend on the same bait (supplier) that we use."

Sport-fishing industry watchers say the fleet makes a $2.2 billion splash in the region's economy and it is Jason Dunn's job to make sure boats leaving San Diego Bay are carrying plenty of live bait.

A manager at Everingham Brothers Bait Co., Dunn has four local fishing boats to keep the bait pens full. Unlike deep-sea vessels that chase tuna in the open ocean, bait boats scour near-shore areas.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Long-range fishing boat Excel heads out to Sea.

"It's a lot different cause you're trying to deal with a smaller animal that's trying to hide from those big game fish. And most of the time they're in close. Inside of rocks or kelp and its hard to fish nets inside of that," Dunn said.

Things are a little slower in the spring, but the operation runs around the clock in the summer. When it comes to the bait, Dunn keeps track of everything.

"We know when it came in. How it came in. Where it came from. And that all determines how well it does when the customer takes it," Dunn said.

The small fish are delicate. Crews avoid handling them. And that's why the Navy Pier project is an issue. Driving the pier pilings into the bay floor will be loud. So loud marine mammals could be hurt.

"And fish," Dunn said. "And they're afraid to disturb all of our fish that are here. They don't want to kill all our fish so we have to move during that time."

The new anchor spot is just off Harbor Island. The barge might stay there for a couple of months or for the rest of the year.

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