By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

All but one of Crescent City commercial fishing boat owners eligible to participate in a federal buyout program have agreed to sell.

The National Marine Fisheries Service buyout of the 14 fishermen will forever change Crescent City's commercial fishing industry.

The federal buy-back program, which went into effect this week and grants the fishermen until Dec. 4 to halt operations, is part of an effort to save the West Coast groundfish population.

The owners of the 14 Crescent City-based trawling boats sold their groundfish, crab and shrimp fishing permits to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jerry Hemmingsen of the FV Pollux was the only eligible boat owner here who didn't sell.

Those vessels without permits may never again use their boats for commercial fishing anywhere in the world.

andquot;This is really historic. There has never been a buy-back of this magnitude in the country,andquot; said Richard Young, a local trawling boat owner and former college economics professor who sold his permits in the buyout.

andquot;We took out some of the biggest crab producers in the county. The Miss Joanne is gone, the Yurok is gone, the Captain Bradley is gone,andquot; said Young who owns the FV City of Eureka.

The federal government bought 92 trawling vessels between Morro Bay, Calif., and Bellingham, Wash.

Young said those boats equate to almost half of the groundfishing on the West Coast.

The buyout means 14 local boat owners will get $497,000 on average from the government. And fishermen who didn't sell are allowed to catch 50 percent more fish than before the buyout.

But despite the perks of the plan, there are questions in the community about how the local economy will be affected.

andquot;I think it's a big question mark,andquot; said Kevin Hartwick, a certified public accountant and member of the Del Norte County Board of Economic Advisors.

andquot;If the fishermen were to reinvest in a business, we would benefit as an economy, and if the feds keep their promise and don't further restrict the fishermen that are left, it might work, but you're not going to know for several years,andquot; Hartwick added.

In the meantime, Hartwick said the small businesses that sell fuel, bait, supplies and do repairs to local fishing boats will likely feel the negative effects of the buyout.

In the year 2000, commercial fishing generated $21 million in Crescent City. According to an economic breakdown of the county's economy by industry, fishing made-up about 5 percent of Del Norte County's economy.

Garry Young, president of the Crescent City Harbor Commission, is a fisherman who sold his boat in the buyout. He predicted the buyout will generate some negative effects, but it won't be devastating.

andquot;Some of these guys are going to buy smaller boats and go fishing for crab and salmon. And there are a lot of the smaller boats that will stay who weren't involved in the buyout because they don't trawl,andquot; Young said.

The buyout plan was drafted because groundfish populations were shown to have drastically declined in the past decade, according to studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Those studies triggered massive restrictions on how much fish each boat could bring in, putting a choke hold on income for Northcoast fishermen.

andquot;It was 'the death of a thousand cuts.' And before you knew it, there wasn't a real fishery left,andquot; said Richard Young.

Richard Young was very involved in the decade-long process of convincing National Marine Fisheries to buy back fishing permits from boat owners who were losing more and more money as restrictions tightened.

To participate in the plan, trawl boat owners wanting to sell had to relinquish all of their state and federal fishing permits and amend the title of their boats to show they are not to be used for fishing anywhere in the world.

Richard Young said the local fleet was more than happy to trade a lifelong career for the hefty paycheck and a chance to do something else.

andquot;The truth is, with the fishing industry going downhill, it has become a real struggle. It used to be an enjoyable way to make a living. When 14 out of 15 boats sell, it tells you how tough it was,andquot; he said.

What effect the buy-back will have on Crescent City Harbor is unknown said Young, but it will likely be positive.

andquot;Just having a lot of unsuccessful boats isn't good for the harbor. I think what's good for the harbor is to have a healthy fleet,andquot; said Young, adding that he believes successful boats in other harbors may relocate here because it is the safest on the Northcoast.