California draws millions of visitors each summer with a wide variety of natural and cultural attractions — like Yosemite National Park, whose astounding cliffs are proof of either God or glaciers; the brutal but beautiful deserts of the south; the astounding Big Sur coast, where cougars and bears roam the upland wilderness as cliffs plunge into the Pacific; the frigid North Coast of Mendocino and Humboldt counties, where the redwoods grow; and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s gateway to the wild lands to the north.
But if you were to come west across the country, aiming for the wonderful Golden State, and overshoot your destination by, oh, five or ten miles, you’d still land in a pretty sweet spot. Because in the ocean waters just off the Central Coast, the Chinook salmon are swarming this summer like they haven’t in years. Commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen alike are elated, with veterans saying it hasn’t been this good in 15 years. Biologists estimate that more than two million adult salmon are now present in coastal waters — more fish than in the past four seasons combined. Fishermen will harvest hundreds of thousands by the season’s end in September, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to swim upstream to spawn in the Sacramento River, laying the eggs of tomorrow’s salmon.
For several years, though, salmon fishing was dismal in California. In fact, the fish seemed on the verge of vanishing. Things hit rock bottom in 2009, when just 39,000 adult fall-run Chinook salmon returned to spawn in the Sacramento — the lowest number ever recorded (in 2002, by comparison, about 800,000 adult fall-run kings returned to spawn). As a result of the crash, which began in about 2007, the fishing season was shortened or entirely closed in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for both commercial and sport fishermen.
The collapse of California’s salmon was likely due to a number of reasons, including complicated natural cycles of ocean productivity and overdrawing of river water from the Sacramento for agricultural use. But the past two years have seen federal restrictions that limit just how much water can be removed from the river system, and just when the pumps may be operated (pumping is now curtailed during the first six months of the year, when millions of baby salmon occupy the river and delta). Salmon enthusiasts credit this new management scheme with the rebound of the fish.
And now, at least for a while, the salmon are back, and party boats are packed with day-tripping recreational fishermen. Many of these pay-to-fish vessels leave from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and if you’re a tourist in town for several days, well, OK, do all the guidebook things you came here for. Then, get to the fun stuff: Pay $100 to a local skipper and hop aboard, spend a day at sea and, with just a little luck, reel in one of the most prized food fishes in the world. Across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Salty Lady party boat and several others run out of Sausalito. You’ll need a state recreational fishing license, which can be purchased on board most vessels.
Salmon fishing involves either dangling baited hooks off of a drifting boat — called mooching — or dragging baits or flashing steel lures behind the boat at slow speeds — called trolling. Salmon are aggressive, and they swim in schools, so it’s common that every fisherman on a boat will hook up at once — and that means mayhem. At the surface 50 feet off the rail, hooked salmon will thrash and leap. Lines will cross. Reels will scream as the fish run for the horizon. Sometimes, sea lions will dash in and seize a fish as anglers curse their misfortune. Finally, the landing nets come out, and exhausted fish are lifted aboard. On the very best days, everyone on board has his or her two-salmon limit in an hour or two. Then, it’s nap time as the loaded boat returns home, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and back to the wharf.
The Chinook salmon, though a thrill to battle on the end of a fishing line, is less a brag-about trophy fish as simply a food item. The flesh of the Chinook, as red as the Golden Gate Bridge, is the fattiest of all the Pacific salmon, and the most esteemed by seafood lovers. A salmon’s diet affects just how good it will taste. Off the California coast, boat skippers use fish-finding technology to locate schools of anchovies and herring, around which the salmon are likely to be found, stuffing their gullets with the four-inch bait fish — but it’s a salmon fat on krill that experienced fishermen assure is the best of all.
Salmon, like people, pack on fat around their bellies — and the belly meat may be the tastiest part of the fish. Salmon are best cut into steaks, then barbecued or broiled. Be sure to put a sheet of tinfoil under the meat to catch those prized omega-3 fatty acids, and drizzle the grease over your brown rice. Boil the heads and tails, and strain the stew through a sieve, to make salmon stock. Let nothing go to waste. This is a prized food resource that may not be here forever. Savor it. Appreciate it. Incredibly, some fishermen, wanting only clean muscle, will trim away and discard the succulent belly meat — so if you see a harbor fish-cleaning table, hang out a while. When an angler comes along to fillet his salmon, kindly ask for the scraps. You just might go away with a sack of grade-A salmon.
More West Coast Salmon Fishing Opportunities
The Sacramento River isn’t the only West Coast watershed in which salmon are rebounding. Numbers of Klamath River Chinook salmon are up this summer, as are the sockeyes in the Columbia River, where the current run is looking to be a record setter. More than 400,000 of the three- to eight-pound fish are expected to enter the river basin this year — a tremendous increase over past years. Consider 1995, when just 9,000 sockeyes spawned in the Columbia River basin. It was then that many people feared the species would need federal protection via the Endangered Species Act — which could have shut down fishing indefinitely. But, instead, management of the hydroelectric dams blamed for the sockeye decline was altered, and the fish made a comeback. If you go, you’ll need a fishing license and a “salmon endorsement” stamp.
And in Alaska, naming the rivers in which to fish for salmon would take me all day. Indeed, this final frontier remains the place where salmon fishermen go to heaven. At least, I hope so. Don’t forget to buy your fishing license (and if you want Chinook salmon, you’ll need a supplemental king salmon stamp). With your paperwork tucked away in your wallet, Alaska becomes your oyster — and it’s jampacked with pearls. All five Pacific salmon species spawn in large numbers in most Alaskan streams. Pink salmon swarm into nearly every waterway wider than three feet, but they’re the least tasty salmon. Chums, or keta, are good. Sockeyes and cohos are outstanding. But the Chinook is the king.
Salmon are in trouble. The Sacramento River’s population is strong at the moment, but the proposal to build a “peripheral canal“ to convey water from the Sacramento River to farmlands south of the delta could, if poorly executed, kill the river’s Chinook runs for good. And in Alaska, the Pebble Mine project threatens to devastate the drainage system of Bristol Bay, currently the world’s sockeye salmon capital. Other threats to salmon populations are less understood. Biologists from Simon Fraser University, for example, concluded a study this July in which they found productivity of spawning sockeye salmon to be steadily declining. That is, whereas each adult Fraser River sockeye salmon produced about 20 next-generation adults in the 1960s, an adult fish today produces as few as three, according to the report. This trend has occurred on a wide scale, from Puget Sound north to Alaska — and no one is certain why.
Can Salmon Survive a Peripheral Canal?
Chinook salmon are as abundant this year as in some of the best seasons of local fishing memory, with sport and commercial fishermen reeling in easy boat loads of the most prized food and game fish on the Pacific coast. Still, a local conservation group warns that all this could change for the worse — -and for good — -if state officials in Sacramento, now plotting the near future of California’s water development infrastructure, approve and build a large canal intended to deliver Sacramento River water to Southern California.
The project has been tentatively called the “peripheral canal” for decades, since state voters rejected the proposal to build such a conveyance structure in 1982. Opponents of the canal say the project would remove so much water from the Sacramento River that it would make the estuary habitat of the Delta, where juvenile salmon spend their first six months of life, incapable of supporting certain native fishes.
Now, the peripheral canal plan is back on the drawing board of state government officials, including Governor Jerry Brown — -and the Golden Gate Salmon Association, based in Petaluma, wants to see the project halted before it destroys one of the West Coast’s largest runs of Chinook salmon.
“These are critical times, in the next year or two, for what the Bay-Delta and its salmon will look like for the rest of our lives,” says Victor Gonella, the founder and president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “It’s a rare time. We’re sitting here while our future is shaping up.”
Chinook salmon spawn in many watersheds along the West Coast, as far north as Alaska’s Yukon River. The Sacramento River is the southernmost stronghold of the species, but its salmon runs have seen a roller coaster ride in the last decade between record high and record low levels. Experts largely agree that water conditions — -including flow rates — -of the river and Delta, where baby salmon spend their first months of life, have a strong direct effect on salmon abundance. State and federal records show a long-term average spawning return of the fall-run Chinook, the most historically abundant of the Sacramento’s four distinct runs of salmon, to be between 300,000 and 400,000 fish. But 2009’s all-time low of 39,000 spawners came after water pumping rates from the Delta jumped by 20 percent, to all-time high levels, from 2003 to 2006.
Fishermen fear that the proposed canal is likely to cause an overall decrease in water flow rates, causing declines in salmon numbers.
“(Jerry) Brown needs to scrap the peripheral canal until further notice,” says Mike Hudson, a commercial fisherman in Oakland. Hudson says the current fishing is as good as it’s been in at least five years but adds that he isn’t confident about the future. “Along the entire West Coast we have managed to stop overfishing. Now, if we could only stop over-farming we’d have it made.”
Dr. Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at U.C. Davis, says that the current system for water removal from the Sacramento River, which involves two giant pumps in the Delta, reverses the entire flow of the estuary system when the pumps are operating at full force. This phenomenon confuses young salmon trying to migrate out to the sea, Moyle says. Many become lost or stranded in sloughs, where they make easy pickings for predators. Others are sucked directly into the pumps and killed. Moyle says the peripheral canal, which would draw water from a location far upstream of the Delta, could be beneficial for the Delta habitat since the reverse flow effect would no longer occur.
But he says that a healthy salmon population requires a minimum amount of water flowing through the Delta and out to sea.
“A conveyance in any form will be positive from a native fish perspective only if it is connected to no net increase in diversion (of water),” Moyle says.
What makes Gonella at the Golden Gate Salmon Association nervous is that current plans for the canal’s construction include a 15,000 cubic foot per second capacity, enough to virtually suck the Sacramento River dry. Gonella wants to see that capacity downsized, or see a guarantee written into the peripheral canal’s plans that assures that recipients of the water could never turn the flow up to full.
The current surge in salmon abundance seems to come partly in response to a federal law that took effect three years ago that limits how much water can be removed from the Sacramento River Delta during the winter and spring months, when juveniles of the protected spring- and winter-run salmon are present in the Delta. The fall-run, which is not a listed species, has seen benefits from these water restriction laws.
Still, habitat conditions in the Delta are generally so poor that baby salmon born in the Sacramento’s tributaries must be transported by the millions in trucks and released into the Bay, downstream of the Delta and its dangerous water pumps. This trucking program, however, may be downsized due to state budget cuts — -which could be a disaster for salmon numbers. Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the Bay Institute in Novato, says that in spite of the Chinook salmon’s hardiness the Sacramento River has been so severely altered from its natural state by dam-building and water diversions that it can no longer support self-sustaining runs of salmon.
“What (salmon) require is pretty simple,” he says. “Sufficient cold water must flow unimpeded from the mountains to the ocean during the appropriate season. The fact that salmon populations are declining dramatically throughout the Central Valley indicates how badly our thirst for water has overtaxed the capacity of our rivers to support wild salmon populations.”
Governor Brown has told reporters that a peripheral canal, which is now being designed as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and which could be in operation within several years, will cost $15 billion. But others have second-guessed the governor and believe the water conveyance project could cost state voters as much as $50 billion or more.
Other critics have made the case that the peripheral canal could be illegal. In 1992, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed, requiring that the federal government, in words from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, “(p)rotect, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and associated habitats in the Central Valley and Trinity River basins of California.” Conservationists say this law has been continuously broken for 20 years and that the peripheral canal will only further the deterioration of Sacramento River native fishes habitat.
Gonella says that people must not be deceived by the summer’s great salmon fishing into believing the fishery is healthy and stable.
“We’re having a great year, and they’re expecting a great year next year,” Gonella says. “But people don’t realize that if we don’t get this right, it’s game over. The salmon will be gone.”