California Waypoints – The Handwriting Is On the Wall

By John Hurwitz

In California the great salmon fishing days of the early decade are gone. If you’re a salmon fisherman and had a few good days up north, you may not agree. All right, I’ll give you that; but “up north” is only a small part of the overall salmon fishing grounds. We’ve just finished the 2010 Genetic Stock Identification (GSI) survey, which spanned the coast from Santa Barbara to Crescent City, and the results are outright disturbing.

Earlier this year the California Department of Fish & Game’s best thinkers came to the conclusion that there were at least 245,000 kings (Chinook salmon, or Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) available for taking this year. I don’t know how they came up with these numbers, I’m pretty sure they have scientific types like marine biologists and such on their staff. I presume they’re involved in the process of setting sustainable season fish catches and thereby set the season or no season accordingly. I imagine they collaborate with other like-minded agencies like NOAA/NMFS/PFMC to obtain a consensus about the abundance of the Chinook salmon in California. They probably even ask the Pew Foundation! Who the heck is the Pew Foundation anyway? They seem to have an opinion on just about everything else in the world and have a willing spokesperson to step up at any press conference to voice that opinion. When I was growing up in this fishing business, “Pew,” is what you said after you discovered some old stinking bait hiding in the hold. I get the same reaction each time I hear what Pew thinks about some issue directing our lives today. If anybody out there knows who Pew is, please send me an email. I’ve been fishing so hard for one or two of those 245,000 salmon I haven’t had time to research it. This is not meant to lay blame on Pew. After all, we have our own government to deal with…state legislators, the state Department of Water Resources, the US Bureau of Reclamation, etc.

The frustration I feel is mirrored by so many of my counterparts. Fishermen, be it nearshore, crab, salmon, etc, are trying to ascertain and perform to a reasonable sustainable standard. Yet in fishery after fishery, there always seems to be a barrier to enacting the needed changes on a timely basis.

This summer the bill outlining California crab pot limits failed. Why? Because someone wanted it to fail. Who do you suppose that someone is? All the fishermen I work with wanted this bill and representative from Half Moon Bay worked hard to make it happen. Could it be that someone scuttled this bill to protect a special interest? A special interest with deep pockets? Or maybe not so nefarious, are we playing in someone else’s sandbox? Are these suggested proposals just too close to some agency’s span of control? Can’t do that. Perhaps, there’s just no will to fight the larger bureaucracies, not this year, maybe next.

So this bill goes away, who would care? Who would be hurt financially if they could fish no more than 500 pots? Gosh, can’t think of soul, can you? Can there be boats out there that make so much money fishing 1,000-2,500 pots that they can spend it to defeat this pot limit bill? Could it be that people or processors own more than one boat and are really fishing all that gear? Gee, a boat must have to fish day and night to get through all that gear. How does a bill on “No Night Crabbing”, along with another pot limit bill, sound to you? The pot limit proposal sounded reasonable and remarkably it took a lot of concessions and compromise to achieve the final version; for this the participants should be commended. The results were unfortunately poor. Nothing’s changed. What are the chances that we poor 150-pot fishermen can mount a financial offensive sufficient enough to defeat the special interest guys? I think, none.

This is what I do know. The California salmon industry is in terrible trouble. If science prevails, (no guarantees), the powers that be won’t allow a sport or commercial salmon season in this state for a long time to come. The closures must be complete, even closing the rivers to fishing, especially when the salmon return to spawn. Oh my, another special interest I completely forgot about, guides, motels, bait and tackle shops, river towns, the CADFG licensing and revenue branch and on and on.
What if science does not prevail? What if season designers don’t look at the data from the GSI (genetic stock identification) surveys that have been conducted from north central California to Oregon from May through September? They could somehow have to convince themselves that: 1. The assigned fishermen in each port didn’t fish in the right spots or 2. These fishermen were not competent enough and thereby missed catching all those salmon that were supposed to be out there.

In the case of all the GSI fishermen, all were more than qualified to find and catch salmon, and possessed more than a thousand years of collective salmon fishing experience amongst them.

Unfortunately, either way it goes, the decline in salmon income to the fishermen intensifies the effort on our crab stocks. This may be catastrophic. With each crab season the number of crab is finite; so once those crab are caught there are no more to replace them. With no legal barrier to prevent overfishing, i.e. pot limits, night fishing, etc, we are looking at a future of diminishing returns and finally no seasons. This could be the future of both fisheries. Another happy thought! Even if all goes right, the pot limit bill passes, there’s more water for salmon and they return in sustainable numbers after an appropriate closure period, we have a new problem: Enforcement!