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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...