Seattle’s vanishing piers leave a vibrant fishing community reeling

The Elliott Bay Fishing Pier was a diverse hub where locals connected with surrounding nature. Will it ever come back?

fishing seacrest west seattle

Daniel Kim spends the afternoon of Feb. 28, 2020, fishing at Seacrest Park in West Seattle. Kim was a regular at the Elliott Bay Fishing Pier before it closed indefinitely in 2017. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When Daniel Kim moved from central Texas to Seattle in 2016 to attend the University of Washington, he didn’t know anyone. The 23-year-old still called his elders “ma’am” and “sir,” and school and Seattle traffic frayed his nerves. Fishing was always one of the main ways Kim stayed “sane” under stress; it helped him feel closer to his grandfather.

“It was the last thing I did with him before he passed, so it’s something very dear to me,” Kim says. He started looking for a saltwater fishing pier like the ones he’d fished on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Kim needed fishing gear, so it felt like a stroke of luck when he went online and located the Elliott Bay Fishing Pier, just north of the downtown waterfront, and the FishOn! bait-and-tackle shop at its foot. He called and a guy named Ronn answered, confirming in a friendly baritone that Kim could come down and start fishing right away.

Also known as Pier 86, it was even better than Kim had expected. The hulking grain silos and a massive construction site for Expedia’s new tech campus were eclipsed by a wide Puget Sound view dotted with every kind of boat: resolute tugs, lulling sailboats, stout tankers, ferries. When the clouds dispersed, Mount Rainier rose to the left, and the Olympics jutted up on the right. The T-shaped pier could hold a crowd and was stocked with amenities: cleaning stations, tilted railings with holes for poles and congenial fellow fishers.

One of the most welcoming was Ronn Kess, a war veteran in his 60s who was the proprietor of FishOn! Leased from the Port of Seattle, the small cinder block kiosk had been transformed over the last few years by Kess, who added driftwood railings to enclose a small patio, whitewashed bar stools tucked under the front counter and a broad patio umbrella. A steady stream of jazz trickled from a speaker, and hand-designed menus in the windows promised implausible, clown-car abundance: smoothies, fish and chips, crab cakes, creme brulee, “famous” burgers, corned beef sandwiches, coq au vin, ice, sodas, ice cream bars — all at lower-than-typical Seattle prices.

Kess shared local fishing tips and free tackle with Kim. Like so many other visitors, the college student kept returning — for the friendship, the fishing and the way the skyline lit up at sunset.

Many of the fishers were, like Kess, older war veterans who gathered to share stories. James Papi-Rivera, a retired veteran living with his family in Everett, says he fished at Pier 86 about every other day. A transplanted East Coaster, he cooked the crab he caught here with Old Bay seasoning.

Like Kim, Papi-Rivera’s fishing connects him to his far-off family. He learned fishing with his grandmother, who took him with his first fishing rod and some worm bait to a pond in New York’s Central Park. “I grew up without a father and my grandfathers had passed away,” he says. “My grandmother wanted me to learn something she thought a boy should know.”

In the fall and winter, especially, Kim, Papi-Rivera and many others showed up at night to join the boisterous crowds of squid jiggers, who gathered to plop homemade jigs into Puget Sound for market squid, a reliable city catch that also offers an opportunity for gourmet eating on a budget.

 “It was great—just snacking and joking around between the squid runs,” said Kim. “Just basically a nice way to spend the evening.”

About a year after Kim arrived, however, he, Kess, Papi-Rivera and the others who showed up to fish or birdwatch found the foot of the pier locked tight. A sign declaring the pier hazardous hung from the chain-link gates. People were angry. Kess hoped the closure was temporary; a bait-and-tackle business without anywhere for people to fish couldn’t survive. The pier remains closed to this day.

A place for the shore-bound angler

When the coronavirus surfaced in Seattle, one community hub after another disappeared. Restaurants, cafes, libraries and gyms all shuttered. Some businesses may never reopen. In the first week of April, recreational fishing was added to the list of closures by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in compliance with the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Seattle's vanishing piers joined the list of endangered gathering places, forcing residents to consider what they mean to our city and which ones are worth saving.

Seattle has seven freshwater fishing piers on Lake Washington, and even fewer on Puget Sound. Fishermen here without boats can usually name them off the top of their heads: Seacrest, Great Wheel, Spokane Street Bridge, Golden Gardens. A few more lie outside the city in Des Moines and Edmonds. Two other Seattle-area saltwater fishing piers have closed in the past several years because of disrepair: one in Des Moines and two on Vashon Island.

Built 2½ miles from the busy waterfront area near Pier 50 in 1981, Pier 86 was described by the Port of Seattle when it opened as a place “aimed specifically at the shorebound angler.” No boat? No problem.

The pier was 340 feet long and 17 feet wide, and extended 100 feet out from shore, with “room for several hundred anglers.” At the foot of the pier, the squat kiosk later occupied by Kess would be leased from the Port as the Happy Hooker bait-and-tackle shop. Underwater, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife installed an artificial reef of thousands of old rubber tires and broken concrete to attract fish. The Port dangled the exciting promise of opportunities for “special derbies and other events.”

The new pier rode in on a wave of revitalization of American waterfronts. New shoreline management rules, including from the city of Seattle, also required as much public access to the water as possible. Fishing from a congested city shoreline is tough; the pier gave anyone a chance.

They picked an excellent spot, says Mark Yuasa, a former Seattle Times outdoors reporter for 25 years who grew up fishing in South Seattle in the late ’70s and ’80s. Yuasa wrote several stories about squid fishing at the Elliott Bay Pier. The place is special, he says, in part for the way fish seemed to migrate there and then linger, perhaps because of the reef. 

But it was equally special, he thinks, for the way it seemed to attract a variety of people, as well as more families with kids than elsewhere. Yuasa, who is Japanese American, enjoyed the mix. 

“Such a diverse group of people were down there when it was open,” he says. “It brought all these communities together — Eastern Europeans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Samoans — everyone would talk to each other. It was really neat to be able to find that vibe.” 

One of the few recent datasets of recreational fishers on Seattle shorelines underscores the diversity of Seattle’s fishing community. In a study conducted in 2015 and 2016 on the banks of the Lower Duwamish, surveyors talked to fishers of more than 20 different ethnicities, including, as categorized for the study: “numerous Asian and Pacific Islander groups, several European groups, Blacks/African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Latinos, Caucasian, and people of mixed ethnicity.” Most were men, with a significant minority of women. Some said they shared catch with their families and friends, and some said they fished with their families, as a way to spend time together. Most of them said dropping lines into the water was as much about being out in nature as it was about catching fish; everyone reported that fishing was a way to relieve stress.

In fact, feelings of well-being and connection with nature while harvesting on Puget Sound shorelines has been a focus of scholarly study. In the paper “ ‘Sense of Place’: Human Wellbeing Considerations for Ecological Restoration in Puget Sound,” published in 2016 in the journal Coastal Management, authors Dr. Melissa R. Poe, an environmental social scientist at Washington Sea Grant, and her colleagues reported on links they found in their research between sense of place and human well-being.

They studied Washington State’s Puget Sound residents, both tribal and nontribal, using the context of shoreline activities: primarily shellfish harvesting, but also fishing, walking, bird watching and kayaking. They posed three overarching questions: “How do different people (grouped as tribal shellfish harvesters, nontribal shellfish harvesters, and nontribal, nonshellfish harvesters) form and experience place attachments? How does sense of place contribute to well-being? How might people’s place attachments help prioritize restoration?”

Their research found links between harvesting and fishing from Puget Sound and well-being, including sense of place, and also an increased awareness of conservation values like concern for water quality, habitats and ecosystems. It is another confirmation of what people like Kim, Kess and many others have felt: that fishing can be as much — sometimes more — about attachments to place and community as it is about bringing home dinner.

The flip side of the research points to how the lack of places like Pier 86 can harm a city: Without access to shoreline use and those harvesting opportunities, Poe and her colleagues found well-being for both the individual and community can suffer. 

Daniel Kim spends the afternoon fishing at Seacrest Park in West Seattle on Feb. 28, 2020. Kim was a regular at the Elliott Bay Fishing Pier before it closed indefinitely in 2017. He says that pier was much more convenient for him to be able to fish regularly. Now he bounces around among different fishing piers in and around Seattle. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The last bait-and-tackle shop

Growing up in Baltimore, Kess first landed in Seattle in 1976 after serving in Vietnam in the Air Force. He enrolled at University of Washington as a drama and communications student and football player. Already an enthusiastic fisherman, Kess became one of Seattle’s waterfront regulars after hooking a cod not far from the future location of Pier 86. Despite 35 years of cross-country moves that took him away from Seattle and back again, Kess would always return and drop a line. He fished the Elliott Bay area through its pre-pier and pier-opening phases. He had seen a couple of changes of the guard in the bait-and-tackle shop — including witnessing one of the owners having a heart attack and dying behind the counter.

In 2011, fishing at the pier on a day off from his job working as a chef on the Amtrak Empire Builder, Kess learned that the lease for the bait-and-tackle shop was coming available. He loved to fish and he loved to cook. 

“I was fishing and one of the locals was down there — he was Mr. Moneybags — and he said maybe he’d take over the shop. I said, ‘No he wouldn’t — I would.’ He said, ‘You don’t have enough money for that.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really?’ 

“You don’t dare an East Coast person — we will take you over.”

Lease in hand, Kess connected with local food merchants he already knew from working in restaurants, and with local sporting goods wholesalers to stock up on bait and tackle. He installed two refrigerators, and his fishing and veteran friends jumped in to help. He dumped the Happy Hooker name in favor of FishOn!, opened and began cooking six days a week for his growing patrons. He paid off his loans, started turning a profit, and settled into what he called his “dream”: cooking and fishing and chatting with customers all day long.

The pier and its adjacent cycle paths and park kept drawing in new visitors. Youth groups came to learn how to squid. Hempfesters bought french fries by the bushel. Kess’ favorite dog customers were growing fat on bits of his corned beef. He encouraged a few of his favorite buskers at the Pike Place Market to come down to the pier when the cruise ships were in to make some money. Marshawn Lynch and some Seahawk teammates dropped by.

Things could also get “hairy” by the water: Occasionally, anglers would get into fisticuffs on the pier over personal fishing space. Kess once fought a man who tried to attack him in the public bathroom. He told someone who once threatened him that if he saw the man there again, he’d be “blowing bubbles out of Elliott Bay.” More recently, he rousted people who tried to camp on the pier — although at other times, his friends say he also fed people who seemed homeless. 

“I figured, I’m going to be here forever,” he says.

The long road to reopening

The pier closure was a serious blow to Kess. An electrical fire set him further back, and then the shop was broken into twice.

To Kess, the shiny new presence of Expedia’s campus, built on the 40 acres just across the bike and walking path from the pier, felt like the most likely reason for the closure. He tried to investigate, but he couldn’t prove his position to anyone that mattered. It seemed like an even bigger Mr. Moneybags had come, threatening his dreams.

The pier fell into disrepair, but nothing happened that would deter a hardy angler. The regulars commiserated with Kess, writing letters and complaining to the Port and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. One August morning, when the salmon were running, someone went beyond complaining: The lock was cut, and the gates were reopened. People were out there dropping lines again until the Port sealed things up for good a few weeks later. No one who talked to the Port could get a definite timeline on when the pier might be rebuilt or reopened, if ever.

This year, the Port, Fish and Wildlife and Expedia have all settled on the general plan to rebuild and reopen Pier 86, and have begun promising that there will be a future public fishing. (These plans were in place before COVID-19 arrived.) There’s funding, too: $1 million from the state, $2 million from Expedia and $1 million more from the Port. They all say needed repairs made it unfit for use. 

Peter McGraw, a Port of Seattle seaport and real estate contact, says “the pier had gotten past its useful life,” and that maintenance vehicles couldn’t access it safely anymore. According to Brendan Brokes, Fish and Wildlife's North Puget Sound region director, the pier hadn’t had any major upgrades since it was built, and needed significant structural repair. He also says the pier was closed partly for safety concerns, with reports of people building fires on the piers, and trying to camp in the shelters. Security upgrades, including possibly cameras, will be installed.

“It is a high priority for us to see the pier renovated and reopened,” Brokes says. “The waterfront in Seattle is extremely developed and urban, and most facilities on the waterfront are private, not public. This is a pretty unique opportunity. 

“We'd love to get it opened as soon as possible, but we're right in the preliminary stages.”

Brokes says Fish and Wildlife can’t give a timeline for opening a revamped pier 86. State Sen. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, who has championed state funding for the pier restoration from the state, is more specific. In her vision, the pier could also accommodate canoe and kayak launches, and even an electric passenger ferry, like the Seattle water taxi. Tarleton says expanding the pier’s uses would ensure its future. 

The Port advises anglers to visit nearby Pier 69 for an alternative pier. Kim doesn’t favor that pier, so sometimes he goes squidding at the one by the Great Wheel, though he says it’s touristy and can’t compare. Papi-Rivera has moved on to fishing for rainbow trout at a lake. (Though right now both have had to put down his fishing gear to comply with social distancing rules).  

Kess couldn’t hold on for another two to three years until the pier returned. He closed up shop in 2018, and moved to a remote Alaska cabin, where he’s happy to be free of traffic and have a freezer full of salmon. He says he misses his friendships and the view at the pier.

On the last day at FishOn!, Kess invited people to stop by for one last meal.

“Everyone got together, and Kess cooked his famous burgers and fries, he made his nachos thing with vegetables on top and cheese, and he put all the drinks on the table and we all sat around at the picnic table under the umbrellas, and we all were talking and telling stories until the sun went down,” says Papi-Rivera. He fished one last time with his friend, then helped pack Kess’ car.

“That pier was a really rare gem,” says Kim.

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