Fishery managers announced last week that salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon is completely closed this year. No weekend trips on the river, no local salmon on the barbecue, no opportunity to see your kid reel in a fish.

I fish salmon commercially from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge from my boat, where chinook have passed for millions of years on their journey from the ocean, through the bay and Delta, up the Sacramento River.

There is communal anticipation before the first trip of the summer, checking anchor winches and hydraulic hoses, safety equipment, leaders, weather reports. Boats are freshly painted and deck tanks for holding fish are installed.

Not this year. This year feels like a funeral.

Salmon and Dungeness crab are the backbone of the San Francisco fishing fleet. Other fisheries like black cod, shrimp, halibut, rockfish, anchovies and herring contribute, but salmon and crab pay the bills and keep us working year-round. Without our commercial and recreational salmon seasons, every fishing business in California will struggle to support our families this year — every captain, deckhand, fuel dock, buyer, processor, gear store, charter operation and marina involved in this $1.4 billion industry.

Fishing is inherently unpredictable – good years, bad years, the excitement of big fish, the anxiety of rough weather. I knew salmon populations had fluctuated from under 100,000 to millions over the last century. What no one expected was the complete closures of ocean salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009.

I was new to commercial fishing then, but I remember the shock from generational fishermen. I remember the hollowing out of our fleet and port infrastructure, the lost businesses and financial desperation in coastal communities. It was devastating, but followed by a decade of robust salmon fishing. The crash of 2008 felt like an anomaly in an otherwise productive fishery.

Fifteen years later, we are right back where we started. Have we learned nothing in 15 years? 

Unfortunately, we repeated many of the same water policy mistakes. We are shocked at the low returns to the Sacramento basin in 2022 (62,000 adults), but we shouldn’t be surprised. Fish we expected last fall (predicted 198,000) hatched out of eggs deposited in the gravel in fall 2019, when plenty of fish (164,000 adults) returned to spawn.

Sadly, California was in the midst of another drought and every water management decision favored powerful agricultural interests over salmon. Every stage of the life cycle was impacted by warm water and low flows. 

Even worse, we may see similar returns this fall. Fish that should return in 2023 faced similarly terrible river conditions during their life cycle. We should not be surprised by disappointing returns next year if California’s river systems are no longer a suitable breeding habitat for our iconic Chinook salmon.

Hope is not lost, however. The state experienced record rainfall this winter. Every fish that comes out of the gravel and hatcheries this spring has a good chance of making it to the ocean.

They say tragedy comes in threes, but we can’t survive a third tragedy like this. Our coastal communities, salmon populations and ecosystems deserve better. This should be an opportunity to make changes and ensure this tragedy doesn’t occur again in 14 years. 

California needs serious change in water management. We need our governor, Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state Department of Water Resources to ensure sufficient flows of cold water through our river ecosystems. We need solutions that don’t frame the problem as farms versus fish but strike a balance between both land and ocean-based food resources.

Sarah Bates fishes commercially from San Francisco. She works with other fishing advocates to protect ecosystems, marine resources and public access.

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(6) comments

kiosk

This is a reply to JCU's 2nd post below.

"Do fishermen get subsidies from the state and or feds?"

Yes. A lot of which most people are unaware.

"Seriously. Educate me."

With all due respect I can't educate you or anyone else. A person has to educate themselves. You can get a superficial overview of anything from popular media. But an in-depth understanding of fish (and any other) politics takes years of involvement with the issues and the players.

As Winston Churchill astutely remarked "I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college."

Myself, I was involved in or followed fish politics for 35 years. Sorry. If you want to understand what goes on in the fish business you'll have learn it yourself.

John Charles Ullom

Fair enough. As you probably noticed, I did. Farmers get lots more Socialism than Fishermen.

kiosk

A Canadian farmer I once met asked me this rhetorical question : "What's the difference between a farmer and a 747?"

Answer: "The 747 stops whining when you shut it down!"

As a commercial fisherman from Pillar Point Harbor in my younger days, I observed the same with fishermen!

John Charles Ullom

Wow. These guys are getting slammed and folks imply they are whiners. Farmers receive all kinds of welfare and socialism and it is true, they whine, a lot.

Fishermen get nothing like the kind of subsidies Farmers receive. If not for the socialized plumbing system created by the Feds and California, there would be a lot more fish and nothing between the Sierras and the the East Bay hills.

kiosk

"Fishermen get nothing like the kind of subsidies Farmers receive."

Really? You don't know a thing about fish politics -- and it shows.

John Charles Ullom

Well, do tell. How do taxpayers subsidize fishermen? I concede I know nothing about fish politics. Do fishermen have subsidized fish insurance? Are fishermen paid not to fish?

Seriously. Educate me. Do fishermen get subsidies from the state and or feds?

Google says it is true that other nations subsidize their fleets. And I see that fishermen do get fuel subsidies but farmer do too.

I am more partial to fishermen. Don’t see anything humorous about their lively hoods being jeopardized.

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