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Zeke Grader, a champion for West Coast commercial fishermen over four decades, pursued his goals in public protests, courts of law and legislative corridors, never losing sight of his early years on the seafood docks in Fort Bragg.

A lawyer, lobbyist and a former Marine Corps reservist, Grader got major laws enacted to protect California’s salmon, waged water battles with powerful interests and risked condemnation by some fisherman for supporting catch limits.

Grader, a Marin County resident for more than 40 years, died Monday of pancreatic cancer at a San Francisco hospice. He was 68.

“Zeke was single-minded,” said his wife, Sausalito attorney Lois A. Prentice. “He had a vision and, no matter what, he never deviated from his vision. I called him a soldier; he had so much passion for what he was doing.”

Accolades came from congressmen, federal officials and colleagues who worked with Grader over his 39-year tenure as the founding executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“Zeke was for decades a tireless fish warrior,” said William Stelle Jr., West Coast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Tough as nails, blunt spoken and full of life, he leaves us better, stronger and in a changed place because of his accomplishments.”

Grader received an environmental hero award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in 1998, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi said in a speech on the House floor that Grader is “one of those rare leaders who we will look to for guidance on our troubled waters in the next century.”

“He was one of a kind,” said Chuck Wise, a retired Bodega Bay fisherman and former president of the federation, an umbrella group for commercial fishermen’s associations from San Diego to Alaska. Without the environmental protections Grader fought to secure, the fishing industry “would probably be kaput,” Wise said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, marveled at Grader’s work ethic, recalling that he would answer calls in his office at 5 a.m. and if fishing families needed help in Eureka, Grader would hit the road at 2 a.m. and be back in his office later the same day.

“He knew the science, he knew the politics and he knew the personal side as well,” Thompson said in an email. “To me, he was a loyal friend with a wealth of knowledge and a big heart.”

Grader’s master stroke, friends said, lay in forging an alliance between environmentalists, a generally urban group, and blue-collar fishermen, two forces that were at odds in the 1960s and ’70s as the California salmon population was in decline and fishermen were widely blamed for hooking too many of them.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Grader was among the plaintiffs in a case filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and initially handled by Huffman, charging the federal government with operating a dam that dried up miles of the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. A settlement in 2006 included an agreement to restore a 153-mile stretch of the river.

Grader lobbied for congressional approval of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992, which reserved 800,000 acre-feet of water for the environment.

Nearly all the federal and state protections for California salmon “have his fingerprints on them,” Huffman said.

Grader also participated in one of the most outrageous environmental demonstrations, the dumping of 500 pounds of dead, rotting salmon in front of the Secretary of the Interior’s office in Washington, D.C., in 2002 as a protest — staged by Thompson — of the government’s role in a massive salmon die-off that year on the Klamath River.

William F. Grader Jr. grew up in Fort Bragg, working in his family’s seafood business and befriending the men and women whose livelihoods depended on the ocean’s bounty of salmon, crab, squid, swordfish, rockfish and other species. Fishermen gave him the lifelong nickname of Zeke.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Sonoma State University in 1969, adding a law degree from the University of San Francisco in 1975 at the insistence of his father, who ran the family seafood business and also served as undersecretary for natural resources in Sacramento.

Prentice and Grader met in 1972, while he was in law school and she was a lawyer, and they were married for 40 years. But as soon as Grader picked up his degree, he told his father he was going to work for the fishermen, leading to his post as head of the Pacific Coast Federation for 39 years.

Prentice said her husband fought against dams, as well as farmed and genetically modified fish. He vied with powerful agricultural interests and urban water districts for the water needed to sustain salmon. His relentless campaign included lobbying top Bay Area chefs to describe wild salmon as “sustainable” on their menus, she said.

“He didn’t win every battle,” Prentice said, “but he won the war.”

Survivors, in addition to his wife, are his mother, Geraldine Grader of Fort Bragg; sisters, Allison Grader of Reston, Va., and Lyndsay Grader of Sacramento; brother Samuel Grader of Fort Bragg; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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