Going to the Mat for Fish and Fishermen

Zeke Grader

On one side: fish. On the other side: fishermen. In the middle: Zeke Grader.

For more than four decades, the California-based fishing advocate has worked to find common ground between taking care of the environment and looking out for the needs of family fishermen. Armed with passion and determination, the law school graduate and former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant is a recognized leader in the shaping of fishing and environmental rules that affect millions of people nationwide.

For 40 years, Zeke served as executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the largest trade group of commercial fishermen on the West Coast. In that position, Zeke worked on hundreds of issues, from conserving prey for predators such as salmon, to protecting fish habitat, to dismantling dams, to helping fishing communities survive tough times. And, if you enjoy Pacific salmon, you should thank Zeke. Although Zeke has stepped down from his official position at PCCFA, he has continued to advocate for fish and fishermen and his approach deserves recognition.

Zeke Grader fields questions from reporters at the San Francisco Presidio national park in 2009.
Zeke Grader fields questions from reporters at the San Francisco Presidio national park in 2009.

I’ve worked with Zeke for the past 17 years, starting when I headed the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national coalition of fishing groups including the PCFFA, conservationists, scientists, and others who work to maintain healthy fish populations. Zeke is a good friend and someone I could always go to for sound advice and a clear picture of how fishermen viewed an issue.

So in April, I joined other fishing and ocean leaders at a California event to pay tribute to a man who relentlessly prodded, argued, and plied every strategy imaginable to reach his goals. The guest list, which reflected Zeke’s vast influence and impact, included conservationists, fishing groups, state lawmakers, members of Congress, and even a video appearance by Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, White House chief of staff, and CIA director, who also is active in ocean issues.

“Zeke Grader has provided critical leadership in the fight for strong stewardship of our ocean resources,” Panetta told me recently via email. “His cause is to protect life—the life of our oceans, the life of our fisheries, and the lives of those fishermen who depend on these fragile resources. His common sense, his total devotion to those he represents, and his commitment to getting the job done have given all of us the courage and inspiration to help protect our oceans. If our oceans are the ‘salt in our veins,’ Zeke Grader is the fire in our spirit.”

Zeke Grader with Leon Panetta
Zeke Grader, left, and Leon Panetta.

Zeke’s passion for fish started at home. He was born and raised in the California salmon town of Fort Bragg, where his father founded Grader Fish Co. to buy, process, and broker fresh local seafood. Zeke spent much of his childhood on the family dock helping fishermen unload their catch. His conservation-minded parents, who were active in local politics, exposed him to the push and pull of political battles early in life. These youthful experiences shaped the no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach that has been the hallmark of his advocacy and career.

“I think part of it is standing your ground, saying what you mean,” he reflected during our most recent phone conversation. “Don’t mince your words. Know what you’re talking about. Stay firm; don’t back down.” Zeke figures he’s been called every name in the book. And he says it doesn’t bother him in the least.

Although he’s an intense fighter, Zeke has been able to broker important compromises, partly because he knows how to make people understand one another. I’ve witnessed this capability in the years I’ve served as director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation programs and during my time at the Marine Fish Conservation Network, where Zeke was a member of our executive committee. I am always impressed by his ability to explain things so that fishermen can relate to environmental issues and environmentalists can understand fishing issues.

Zeke Grader and the staff and board members of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations stand in solidarity with fishermen campaigning for dam decommissioning and salmon habitat restoration in the Columbia River basin.
Zeke Grader and the staff and board members of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations stand in solidarity with fishermen campaigning for dam decommissioning and salmon habitat restoration in the Columbia River basin.

Policy and scientific experts talk among themselves about topics such as “ecosystem-based fisheries management,” and Zeke can translate that jargon for regular folks. And that kind of mutual understanding is where compromise begins. So despite his reputation as a bulldog, Zeke is also something of a diplomat.

“It’s being fair—understanding their side and trying to come up at times with solutions that also help them,” he said. “You want to avoid the situation where you have winners and losers. Those losers will spend their time lying in wait to knock off the winners. You’re better off trying to achieve agreement where both sides get something out of it.”

That’s sage advice we should heed at this critical time. Compromise and understanding—two of Zeke’s strengths—are vital as Congress considers proposals to weaken federal protections that have helped many fish populations recover from severe overfishing.

“We’ve made so much progress. I believe the U. S. leads the world in having sustainable fisheries,’’ Zeke told me. “We have a lot to do, but we’re ahead of most other nations. Abiding by the science has made a big difference. We’ve got to prevent any backsliding, whether it’s under the term ‘flexibility’ or whatever.”

And he believes, as I do, that the next step forward is that scientific jargon I mentioned: ecosystem-based fisheries management. In this more comprehensive system, decisions about fish aren’t made for one species at a time. Instead of focusing exclusively on how many of each fish can be caught, this approach considers existing scientific information about a range of factors, including where fish live, what they eat, what eats them, and what other factors affect them. Integrating that data and shifting to big-picture fisheries management can help ensure that fish populations are sustainable for the communities that rely on them and for the future health of the oceans.

Zeke Grader on a pier with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Zeke Grader on a pier with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

“That’s the only way we’re going to get at having abundant fish stocks,” Zeke said. “We’ve been able to control fishing, but we haven’t addressed the other factors affecting fish stocks. It’s complex, and particularly complex for fishery managers used to looking at a single species by itself. They become so myopic; they look at fishing alone, and we’re asking them to broaden their approach. It causes stress, and it’s out of their comfort zone.”

Zeke says it’s critical to protect fishing communities.

“We have to recognize that fish stocks are public trust resources. They don’t belong to four or five large fish companies. They belong to the public. We have to ensure fishing communities are protected,” he said.

My respect for Zeke has only grown through the years as I have seen firsthand how his never-give-up attitude can achieve great things. To me, Zeke stands as a symbol of what an honest, forthright leader with vision can accomplish. We need more people like Zeke, because we won’t find solutions to our ocean problems unless we all learn to seek out common ground.

About Lee Crockett

Lee Crockett is director of the U.S. Oceans program at The Pew Charitable Trusts

2 comments on “Going to the Mat for Fish and Fishermen

  1. When there are heroes to be cheered, fishermen to be praised or conservationists to be recognized, there will always be one dedicated man who will rise to the top – Zeke Grader. Zeke would go to the wall with the EDFs and others who would privatize his guy’s resources just as he would raise hell with the oil companies and the corporations. He would call BS wherever he saw it when it came to fish, fisheries and the ecosystems that supported all of it. More than once he called BS on something I said or did.

    Zeke is and has for decades been an amazing and wonderful human being. We will all miss him when he is gone.

  2. Pingback: Honoring Zeke Grader’s Legacy | Marine Fish Conservation Network

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