The docks at Spud Point in Bodega Bay are full of fishing boats at 8 a.m. on a late fall morning. The scene is eerily reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic movie where the humans are all in hiding or extinct.
The sun shines down on the cold, crisp morning water, where the only sound is the intermittent lapping of water against the boats.
Normally, most of these boats would be out in the Pacific Ocean searching for Chinook salmon, also known as King salmon.
Today, there are no empty dock spots and no people tending to the boats.
The tiny shop on the dock is open, but it only has two fishermen in it stopping by to say hello.
Just up the hill overlooking the Bay, three out-of-work fishermen meet in the bait shop. All are dressed for working on the boat — long sleeve flannel, sweatshirt, jeans, and sturdy shoes. Even though they’re in their work gear, ready to go, there will be no boat work today.
Across California, most commercial and sport fishermen are coping with empty time and pockets due to the ban on King salmon, now in its second year.
The latest numbers of the 2009 fall run of salmon are trickling in from the Delta and the Sacramento River. No one knows yet whether these numbers will be enough to allow a fishing season this year. And even if the ban doesn’t extend to a third year, the industry’s long-term future is uncertain.
Tough to survive without salmon season
Historically, salmon has been the big breadwinner fishery for the state. With a collapsed salmon population, the fishermen have tried to survive on the government relief that is dwindling each year.
To stay afloat, they travel to other locations to fish unfamiliar fisheries. Cautious optimism and ideas on how they could fix the problem swirl about the bait shops — restoring the Delta, eradicating invasive species, and respecting the wild population.
The King salmon mostly live in the ocean and return to fresh water to spawn three or four years after their initial migration to salt water.
Back in 2000, the returning King salmon tallied in the 200,000 range, but quickly took a sharp turn downward resulting in a statewide ban for 2008 — when only 88,000 fish returned.
In 2008, only 65,000 fish returned, resulting in the current ban.
Experts believe a combination of poor ocean conditions and limited freshwater passages led to the collapse.
With the salmon missing, the fishing industry was severely hit. The Department of Fish and Game estimates the 2008 ban resulted in a loss of $255 million and 2,263 California jobs. Such a loss cannot easily be absorbed by the individuals who have built their lives around the fish.
The U.S. Government released approximately $46.4 million in relief funds to California for 2009 to help the suffering industry.
The relief funds allocation system is complicated, however, and doesn’t always make up for all the lost income.
Back in the Bodega Bay, Fish On Bait and Tackle shop owner and fisherman Les Fernandes explained the situation.
“The first year ban, the government paid us based on our best year from the previous five years. This year we were paid 63 percent of what we got the previous year,” he said.
Regardless of how much relief money a fisherman receives, each one is realizing he won’t be supported forever and must find a way to survive until the salmon return. Until then, most fishermen are living off what relief funds they do have.
Locally, these blue collar workers hope for decent rock cod trips and public interest in the crab season.
In between these, they advertise for whale watching trips when possible. But one can’t support a family on these crumbs alone.
Finding other sources of income in the meantime
In April and May of 2009, the waters were quiet of fish in Bodega Bay and the surrounding Pacific Ocean. Fernandes took his boat— the Samantha Irene— down to Berkeley and fished the Bay for halibut.
“Not that I wanted to,” he said as he shook his head. “I mean, I live here, we own the bait shop, and I got to go to another harbor to fish?”
Recently, Fernandes embarked on an additional trip with the Samantha Irene to financially stay afloat. Eureka, Calif., saw a short 10-day season in September.
Fernandes leaped at the opportunity.
“I booked every spot for 10 days in two weeks on the Internet. I had two guys come from Winnemucca to go salmon fishing. The people were there,” he said.
Was it worthwhile, though, to travel to places like Berkeley where these simple fishermen have to interact with the city crowds of the Bay and compete against larger charter boats?
“That trip made the boat payment,” Fernandes said.
While the decision is being made on whether or not a season will happen next year, dependence on hatchery fish has emerged as a key issue for the fishermen as well as the researchers.
“They plant so many hatchery fish in the rivers, there’s no room for the wild fish,” said Fernandes.
Several reasons have been suggested for the population collapse. Poor ocean conditions, a dismal environment in the Delta and Sacramento River, and the diversion of fresh water for agriculture garnered most of the press for this collapse.
Dr. Peter Moyle, a UC Davis fishery biologist, agrees these have all played a part, but said a largely overlooked problem is the reliance on hatchery fish. He believes that depending on a uniform fishery sets the population up for a fall.
“Historically, what you would have had up and down the Central Valley would have been separate runs of salmon in every major river,” he said. “They would have had local adaptations. The flows and the seasonalities of flow in the Tuolumne River are different from, say, the Feather River.”
It all starts in the river
Everything down to the diversity in soil types contributes to the local adaptations of each river’s fish. Salmon from different rivers enter the ocean at different times as a result. The ocean conditions affect each diverse population differently. The hatchery salmon do not have a variety of adaptations, which in turn isolates them as a large uniform group.
“Uniform salmon need a uniform environment, and that’s not what we have,” said Moyle.
With the state water crisis escalating recently, all eyes have been focused on the Delta and its necessary refurbishment. An $11.1 billion bond measure will be up to the California voters next November.
But what does this mean for the salmon?
The Delta is currently a hostile environment, which is the primary problem.
There are the pumps, pollutants, dried-up corridors, and invasive species all fighting against the natural journey of the ocean-bound salmon. Because these fish have to face such adversity while traveling down the rivers, they are not growing as they traditionally had and are weaker once (or if) they reach the sea.
“With the bad ocean conditions, and the government giving so much water to the farmers, the fish up above can’t make it down,” said Fernandes.
Most fishermen, who consider themselves fundamental environmentalists, have noted several species taking up residence in these waters. The pickle bush, ice plant and eucalyptus trees have all altered these water systems that the salmon depend on.
Another problem that David French, owner and operator of the Payback fishing boat, has noticed is the striped bass population.
“Stripers aren’t indigenous to California, they’re introduced,” said French.
He recalled a time at Mare Island when he saw hatchery salmon being dumped into the water.
“The stripers were (ravaging the salmon). The guys that are going striper fishing are going right next to the salmon acclamation pens and knocking the (stuff) out of the stripers.”
Stripers vs. salmon
Commercial fisherman Jes Langley believes the Department of Fish and Game should lift the limits on striped bass fishing, with no permit required, in order to protect the salmon.
“Is it going to be the stripers, or is it going to be the salmon?” said French.
Fishermen aren’t completely pessimistic about the upcoming possible season.
French has heard from a friend that the returns on the jacks — smaller, earlier returning King salmon — are looking better.
“What do they say — ‘cautiously optimistic?’” said Fernandes.
A possible season could manifest as a short season — like the one in Eureka — or a fish limit season.
With the latter, Fernandes believes a punch card for King salmon could be a more efficient way of regulating the limit number allowed.
A punch card would limit individuals based on a season as opposed to a single trip. He asked, “When would we ever get one person that is going to want to go that many times in one season?”
Fernandes, French and Langley are wary of the short, token season.
A season like that would greatly depend on the weather. If it gets rained out, no one will want to come brave the conditions. Also, if in the first few days of a short season, no one catches many salmon, word would get out via the fishing reports. Then, no one will sign up for a trip.
There isn’t a full season for the fishermen to recover after a few days of poor fishing. Both situations result in a loss for the fishermen.
If no season is granted, many of these fishermen will be out of business. More boats and bait shops will be put up for sale. More people will be looking for a job in this still-tough economy.
Waiting for a comeback
None of these options comes close to what they really want — a strong returning population of wild King salmon and a healthy environment for them to survive in. This would allow healthy commercial and recreational fishing seasons for years to come and create happily-employed fishermen.
Fernandes looks back to the racks of salmon fishing tackle hanging behind him in the shop. These would have been sold at least three times over had there been a season.
The log books tell the same story. Occasional rock fish or crab trips here and there are handwritten in, but nothing like the busy pages from a book a few years ago flooded with reservations for King salmon.
Until the full salmon season returns, the fishermen will remain like the tackle — ready to work but with hardly anywhere to do it.
They depend on salmon.
Kristofor Husted holds a degree in Cell Biology from UC Davis and contributes regularly to technical writings in the biotech field of neuroscience. He has been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. As an avid fisherman, he spends his free time fishing Northern California Rivers for trout, but also enjoys fishing for bass and salmon (when it’s legal).