Salmon season flops: Drought years cut North Coast fishing

JAMES DUNN NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL | August 21, 2017

Soon after the commercial salmon season opened on Aug. 1, Chris Lawson steered his 53-foot boat named Seaward out of the marina at Bodega Bay into ocean waters where he figured chinook salmon would travel. He spent the day trolling, his lines carefully prepared to entice the spirited, iridescent fish.

There were plenty of salmon, but mostly two-year-olds too small for a commercial fisherman to keep.

Lawson shook off nearly 100 short fish from his lines and kept just seven longer than the minimum size — 27 inches. He snagged $9 a pound for 63 pounds, yielding $567 for the day’s work before fuel expenses and pay to one crew member, who gets 20 percent.

Local stores, including Andy’s in Sebastopol and Whole Foods markets, sell fresh salmon for $22 to $30 a pound. Cut into fillets, a 9-pound fish yields roughly half that in final product.

“Seven hours, we had seven fish,” Lawson said. “You make a little bit of money. There were a lot of short fish,” said Lawson, interviewed alongside his boat on Aug. 10. “It looks better for next year. Recreational guys are having an OK season.” Their size limit is smaller.

“We’re just harassing the shorties,” said Lawson, who has fished for 41 of his 56 years. “Let ‘em be.”

Some fishermen “are hurting so they’ll bring them in anyway,” Lawson said. “They need a paycheck.”

The salmon season off Sonoma and Marin coastlines was severely trimmed this year. Usually it starts in May and the best fishing months go through July. But the 2017 season just started in August and runs to the end of September. On Sept. 1, the minimum commercial size drops an inch to 26 inches, according to California’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

By the end of August, “you get comebackers,” Lawson said, fish that swim back down the coastline aiming to spawn in freshwater. “They don’t feed as aggressively as spring fish,” he said.

The plentiful small king salmon were mostly born in 2015, Lawson said, when hatcheries dumped thousands of 4-inch babies into the Delta, an estuary with more than 1,000 miles of waterways where freshwater from rivers and creeks mixes with ocean water. Rivers including the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Calaveras flow into the Delta, bearing runoff from melting snow.

“They released them by truck into the Delta,” Lawson said. Predators including birds, seals and sea lions watch for officials to dump baby salmon then swoop in to feed. “Predators have a field day” as the fish take a few minutes to adjust to their new surroundings in the wild. “It’s like dinner bell for predators. They catch on quick,” Lawson said.

To boost the survival rate, Fish and Wildlife officials sometimes put young salmon for a few hours into acclimation pens. They also release fish at night when birds don’t feed.

Officials watch commercial fishermen with vigilance. Lawson pointed to a tracking device on a mast. “There’s someone watching me right now,” he said. “It has to be on 24/7. What other line of work do they have a government camera scrutinizing your every move?”

A fisherman with a license for black cod submits to more surveillance, with “observers” and cameras over the plotting polar and sorting table, striped to indicate fish lengths. He calls a number to declare where he plans to fish, and for what species.

A vessel permit for black cod sells for about $180,000 on the open market. Lawson has a 450-pot (trap) crab permit worth about $200,000; a tier-2 biennial permit fee for 450-traps runs $3,257 from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. In a typical year, a salmon permit goes for about $20,000. Permits can be sold or leased on an open market, and require payment of additional annual license fees of $137 plus a stamp of $87.55.

For some permits, the permit holder must be on the boat. With others, the permit can be leased or sold. “In the leasing (contract), there has to be an understanding that the permit does not go to the vessel,” said Richard Ogg, a veteran fisherman who docks his 54-foot boat named Karen Jeanne next to Lawson’s in Bodega Bay. “You have to be really careful. You can lose your permit. The guy can drive away.”

Lawson makes most of his income from crab. In a typical year, he takes home more than $200,000.

His boat is worth nearly $600,000, with a new $75,000 Cummins diesel engine. A refrigeration system cost $44,000, and freezes up to 15 tons of fish quickly to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Salmon are chilled in a slurry of ice and delivered every fourth day. Crabs are delivered live.

He sells fish to Tides Wharf Wholesale Seafood in Bodega Bay. In the first couple of weeks of the crab season, when quantities are high, Tides may truck product to Hallmark Fisheries, based in Charleston, Oregon, Lawson said.

When fishing for tuna, Lawson can stay on the water about 20 days before refueling. He may go fishing for two months at a time.

“People think we’re out there killing everything, a Wild West” on the sea, Lawson said. “It’s not like that at all.”

In 2014, commercial fishermen brought in an estimated 3.6 million pounds of black cod and 2.2 million pounds of salmon.

A stretch of coastline south of San Mateo opened to salmon fishing earlier in the year, but is closed, said John McManus, executive director of 3,500-member Golden Gate Salmon Association, based in San Francisco with an office in Petaluma. He has fished for 44 years. In 2001, fishermen caught more than a million salmon off the California coast, he said.

“In 2008 we got shut down after 79,000 adult salmon,” allowing remaining fish to go into freshwater to spawn. The next year was only 39,000. “There have been wild swings in salmon numbers,” McManus said. “This year the ocean is full of two-year-olds too small for commercial” fishing.

When rain is plentiful, freshwater runoff carries ample sediment, allowing newborn salmon to swim downstream camouflaged, McManus said. When rain is scant, runoff is low and clear, and predators grab baby fish. “Low flows are warm and clear,” he said, not good for salmon. “They can’t hide.” Warm water weakens them.

Most 3-year-old salmon spawn and die. Occasionally one stays in the ocean and grows to age five or six. “They’re rare,” McManus said, “60- to 80-pound fish, incredible,” some four feet long and fat girth. Salmon feed on krill, herring and anchovies, which eat plankton. Strong spring winds agitated ocean waters, renewing the food chain to support salmon.

Some fishermen become flexible about fishing as a business. Ogg “stretched” his boat, adding about 8 feet in the middle after buying it in bad shape for $200,000. He rebuilt nearly every inch and the vessel is now worth some $700,000, with gear for crab, black cod, salmon and tuna.

Ogg pays his crew member 25 percent of revenue for each catch. “We were gone last time six days,” he said. “It’s a commitment.”

Lawson and Ogg are seasoned fishermen who know the right bait, location, trolling speed, depth of line and other factors for each fishery — type of product. The first two weeks of crab season can be a windfall, with up to 60,000 pounds of crab at $3 a pound — $180,000 in revenue. The boat will hold 30,000 pounds at a time. For crab, Ogg takes two crew members; each gets 15 percent. He ends up with revenue of nearly $120,000 in a couple of weeks. “It’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said, with little sleep.

In a decent year for salmon, a four-day trip can yield 40 to 60 fish, each nearly 10 pounds, bringing some $5,000 in revenue.

But not this year. “This is just not happening,” Ogg said. “Pull the gear up. We’re going to go albacore fishing. End of story.” He and his crew caught 185 tuna.

“Albacore fishing is the most fun,” Ogg said, “really exciting. When they bite, they all bite at once.” The boat can have 14 lines.

“When you get a fish, you start turning circles,” he said. “As the boat turns, fish continue to come up. You keep going and going and going. It’s really fun.” He might land 20 fish from one circle then go on to find another vein of fish gold.

“You’re out in the open ocean,” he said. “There’s nobody there. The solitude is outstanding.”

He has fished commercially for 20 years. Before that he had a martial-arts school, teaching gong fu with a Chinese kenpo form. “It taught me about life,” Ogg said, “made me appreciate nature, the product, what we give to the community. I’m a Taoist in philosophy and a Buddhist in movement.”

Inner calm helps in fishing and free diving with no SCUBA gear. “You calm yourself, hold yourself at the surface then drop slowly,” Ogg said, “get in the water and drift.” He can dive down 30 to 35 feet. “As things compress, your body uses oxygen more.” He used to dive for halibut and carries gear so he can free dive to help other fishermen if something gets caught in a prop.

“When bad things happen, they always happen in the nastiest” conditions, he said. “We hit a buoy and ropes got tied up in the wheel. I had to go in and cut it out. It can be 20 knots of wind — boat bouncing around all over.”

Salmon fishing is slower and more intense. “You might get five fish a day, or 10 or 20. If you get the school following you, you can get quite a bit,” he said.

He prefers not to fish salmon when most are too small to keep because the mortality rate is high even for fish released from hooks. “It’s a tough call,” he said. “You have to make money.” Some fishermen don’t have boats set up to flexibly fish whatever is plentiful.

“You have to be aware of other boats,” Ogg said, “be very careful. If you hook a crab pot, it can cost you $1,000. It breaks all your gear.”

In a good year, an experienced fisherman can earn half a million dollars a year. But no matter how well the fishing goes, the culture in the industry favors pessimism — doom slathered with copious amounts of gloom.

“I like fishing,” Ogg said. “I’ll fish whatever I have to,” adapting to what is available. “It’s a good industry if one is driven, uses common sense and is a good businessman,” he said. “It’s a bad industry if you’re not a good businessman. You can make very dramatic mistakes.”

Ogg and Lawson contemplated a tandem two-month run north to fish for albacore tuna. But strong winds along the Mendocino coastline made the trip too risky.

Ogg fishes for a living but eats none — vegetarian for two years.

“It’s so rich,” Lawson said of king salmon. He makes “a seafood barbecue sauce” with butter, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire. “Once or twice a year” and he’s had enough.