The World Loses a Formidable Force for Protection of West Coast Fisheries: Zeke Grader, Dies at 68.

by Carolyn Sotka


Zeke Grader. Photo: PCFFA and courtesy of Sara Randall.

“There are many good fishermen and great ones. But there is only you.” I couldn’t image a better quote than this, from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, to capture the spirit and incomparable nature of Zeke Grader. Grader, the former executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and the Institute of Fisheries Resources (IFR), died September 7th, next to his beloved San Francisco Bay, after a long illness.

In the world of protecting fish and the communities that depend on healthy ocean ecosystems, very few have been able to navigate the tricky waters of  sustainable fishing, as well as Zeke has. As a lawyer and fisherman hybrid, Zeke moved easily amongst all the players, from radical conservationists to salty, old-timer fishermen. I fall somewhere in the middle of the two. When I first met Zeke over fifteen years ago at a sustainable seafood meeting, he initially gave me the party line of PCFFA. But after I recounted my over 180 days at sea as a fisheries observer, my ‘sea legs’ cred rose and we became fast friends and colleagues.

Zeke’s mission was to protect fish, fishery habitat and fishing heritage along the West Coast. Coming from a multi- generational fishing family, he believed in the importance and contribution of commercial fishing to coastal culture and economies. But he wasn’t just saving the fish for the fishermen or the consumer. He was saving the fish for the bear up the river that needs fish to feed her cubs, for the birds that depend on fish roe for survival, and for the river that allows all life to flow and thrive.

sutton zeke

Zeke, seen here with former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, IFR president Pietro Parravano, Sara Randall and Paul Johnson. Zeke received many awards over the years including the Environmental Hero Award from NOAA. Photo courtesy of Michael Sutton – former president, California Fish & Game Commission.

One of my graduate school friends, Natasha Benjamin, had the privilege of working with Zeke as a former program director of IFR, and she contributed to this story. Natasha joined the team in 1999 and together they helped IFR expand their portfolio from projects based just in California, to protection of salmon habitat and other fisheries along the entire West Coast. Also, they worked on environmental standards for aquaculture and legislation for seafood labeling.


Zeke and Natasha in D.C. on one of their many trips to advocate for West Coast fisheries. Photo courtesy of Barbara Healystickel and Natasha Benjamin.

Natasha recalls, “working with Zeke was never boring. Whether we were running to the state capitol in Sacramento or flying to D.C. to testify on a bill or writing Sublegals (a weekly newsletter, which we still faxed when I started), everyday there was a new issue to tackle. Zeke was the ‘go to’ person on all things fish, oceans, rivers and water.”

Even though Natasha left the organization in 2004, once you are part of Zeke’s family, you never leave. Natasha was fortunate to see Zeke a week before he passed, at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, where he was still writing notes on his legal pad, dodging phone calls and setting up meetings.

zeke's angles

Somehow Zeke managed to surround himself with both fishermen and highly intelligent young professionals, seen here and known as ‘Zeke’s Angels’ with Natasha to his left. Photo courtesy of Natasha Benjamin.

David Bitts, a commercial salmon fisherman based in Eureka and the president of PCFFA, said the relatively good condition of West Coast fisheries is a direct result of Grader’s work. “We have fairly robust fisheries on the West Coast, with mostly owner-operated, family-owned boats,” said Bitts. “This is Zeke’s legacy. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and it’s up to the rest of us to keep it that way.”

Pietro Parravano, the president of IFR, said Grader was able to explain the connections among the natural world, fishing communities, and society at large in terms that were both eloquent and understandable. “Zeke gave human values to fish, fishery habitat, to ecosystems, to oceans,” said Parravano. “His vision was embedded in his life-long quest for teaching others the ecological, social, and economic importance of sustaining domestic fisheries. He was a true educator and legend.”

Zeke was a formidable opponent, excellent debater, passionate advocate, and a generous resource for information. For the most part, even if he didn’t agree with you or vice versa, you might end up at the end of the day laughing with him over a beer and of course, locally caught fish.

It has been many years since I have worked exclusively on fisheries issues. Frankly, it is because it is a field where the battle never stops.  Zeke Grader’s battle never stopped and his dedication never wavered, until the day he died. His boots will be hard, if not impossible to fill.

And so I shall end this with another quote from “The Old Man and the Sea” seemingly written for Zeke. “Fish… I’ll stay with you until I am dead.” And so he did. – CS

To learn more about Zeke’s lifetime accomplishments see his tribute in SFGate.



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