Last rites in salmon country?

As California's water war grinds on, salmon fishermen gear up for a risky season

  • Fisherman Larry Collins, aboard the Autumn Gale, at San Francisco’s Fisherman's Wharf.

    Matt Jenkins
  • Doug Killam holds a monster chinook salmon his California Department of Fish and Game crew found in 2008 in the spawning grounds of Battle Creek in the Upper Sacramento Basin. The fish, which died of natural causes, likely weighed 88 pounds live, making it one of the biggest ever recorded in California.

    Courtesy California Dept. of Fish and Game
 

On a bright April morning, most of the tourists at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf were gravitating toward the Wax Museum and the T-shirt shops. But aboard the small fleet of fishing boats tied up here, authentic local color was in no short supply. Clouds of blue invective billowed from the wheelhouse of a boat called the Autumn Gale, where a thick-necked, walrus-mustached fisherman named Larry Collins lit up one cigarette after another and held forth on the dismal recent history of salmon fishing.

The seamiest days of life at the Wharf -- a time replete with tales of crooked fishmongers and game wardens found floating face down in the water -- are largely over. But an aura of guardedness still hangs over the 35-boat fleet here. Not long ago, before the cell-phone revolution, fishermen's seemingly idle radio chatter about "pork chops" and "eggs Benedict" was actually a coded reference to how hot the fishing was.

Despite such circumspection, the Wharf's fishermen stand as defenders of the civic character in a city that loves its food. And each summer, local devotees line up for the "first kings" these boats bring back -- the king, or chinook, salmon that are just beginning the fall run to their home streams in the Central Valley.

"When I'm fishing, I make 5,000 decisions a day," says Collins, who is 52 and the vice president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). "And every decision you make, it makes or breaks you: You drown; you go bankrupt; you come in with the glory and a hold full of fish. It's all on you."

This year, Collins and other California fishermen face an agonizing choice: Whether to gear up for a season that could not only leave them in the red, but may also jeopardize the future of struggling salmon populations.

The past five years have already been harrowing, with a round of fishing bans to protect declining salmon runs in the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border. While those stocks are now in better shape, the main population of local salmon -- the celebrated Sacramento River fall run of chinooks -- is in steep decline. For the past two years, the federal government has banned commercial salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon.

Then, in April, Collins and other fishermen received what seemed like good news. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, a 14-member assembly that makes fishing recommendations to the federal government, voted to open salmon season in California and Oregon. But, particularly in California, the season will be just a fraction of what it once was: Beginning July 1, some 400 commercial fishing boats could be chasing roughly 33,500 salmon.

"It works out to about 90 fish a boat. Eight years ago, you'd catch that in a morning," Collins says, and then pauses. "I'm hoping a lot of guys aren't going to bother."

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