A better era for California anglers
August 08, 2010|By David Schurr
The decline in the California king salmon population has affected fishermen like those at Fisherman's Wharf.
Credit: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle
It was a still and foggy morning. Two anglers loaded their 25-foot sport-fishing boat with sandwiches, ice and bait. Under the calm gray sky, they headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and north to Duxbury in Marin County. Within minutes, they could smell the familiar odor of decaying marine life left on the rocks by the last high tide. Sea lions were barking and lounging as the boat cleared Point Bonita lighthouse and skirted up the North Channel near the infamous Potato Patch shoals.
It was early September 2005, and the summer salmon season had been stellar. Harbors from Monterey to Crescent City had been jammed with boats claiming their prized salmon. That day, fishermen launched their boats with precision and tact, respecting their fellow warriors. This was a ritual for anglers, because getting out of the harbor early is essential for success, and many days found the ocean too rough to attempt.
After the placid gray morning, the sun broke through the fog, and a ripple came upon the sea. A steady north breeze filled in as more boats appeared. The ocean was alive. Kingfishers and murres dived on anchovies pushed up by schools of voracious salmon gorging themselves. An occasional sea lion popped up in a swirl of blood and scales and flipped a fish high into the air, almost smiling as he looked you in the eye.
On the boat, downriggers held spinning bait at a depth of 90 feet, lines were clipped and the rods were ready. The little boat quickly trolled back and forth while the anglers patiently watched their fish-finders for red dashes or bait clouds.
Suddenly a rod popped up as the downrigger released the deep line, and with a burst of adrenaline, an angler rushed to the back of the boat. Within minutes, a chrome flash neared the top of the water column and dashed off again, peeling 30 or 40 feet of line from the reel.
Finally, the hefty king salmon, with translucent blue and silver hues, was netted from the icy Pacific. This prized game fish has an oily scent that cannot be erased from your mind. Twenty-five five pounds of the richest food source known to man went into the box. As the lines were reset, the boat slowly trolled back. The surface of the briny ocean was slick with fish oil as broken anchovy bodies drifted by, remnants of a feeding frenzy repeated over and over again.
Although the fishing was excellent that year, something was wrong. The juvenile fish known as "shakers," occasionally caught and released, were missing. I interviewed charter boat captains and commercial fishermen in ports up and down the coast, and the consensus was the same: No juveniles were being caught. An entire class of fish was absent from the ecosystem. As a result of this tragedy, research began, and I became a scientist and a fishery advocate.
After a year of dismal fishing in 2006, a sharp decline in numbers was evident. The once sustainable California king salmon had been reduced to a mere brood stock. The wave of upset affected the entire food chain. Birds and mammals are still suffering today. The fishery is gone, the ecosystem has collapsed. Politics aside, this resource has been lost.
Sport fishing and environmental groups are desperately working to reverse this situation, but they face many challenges. Like government subsidies and social programs, when a resource is given away - in this case water, a public trust - it is extremely difficult to get it back.
Since I was a young man, I fished for salmon, first in the rivers then on party boats leaving San Francisco twice daily (when the bite was hot). Finally, I bought my own boat, learned navigation and boating safety and lived to fish for salmon.
This fishing heritage, however, has not been passed on to my son. I remember some years ago when I was talking about the salmon decline to my grandfather, who is a World War II veteran, and he simply said:
"We used to hunt Elk in Bakersfield, too, son."
David Schurr is a longtime fisherman and an advocate for sustainable resources. To comment, contact us via our online form at sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.
(C) San Francisco Chronicle 2010