California Waypoints – California GSI Survey 2010

By John Hurwitz

Finally, the California commercial salmon fisherman is being asked to help in assessing the condition of the different Chinook salmon stocks swimming off the California coast. It has been an interesting and exciting experience being able to fish for salmon again. There have been some great laughs (laughing at ourselves) as we set about sorting gear and once again staring up at the trolling poles, trying to remember which tagline goes through which insulator and so forth. It seems, for me at least, that I had forgotten everything I knew about salmon fishing. The season has been closed for two years, and the year prior to the closure, we couldn’t find enough salmon justify the effort.

The powers charged with making this all possible are David Goldenberg (Big Kahuna), president of the California Salmon Council and other lofty titles Sarah Bates (Small Kahuna), master and commander of all ports involved in the survey, and seven Mini Kahunas, one for each area involved in the study. Sarah is in charge of the entire California GSI fleet, and the Mini Kahunas, called port liaisons, coordinate each port’s fishing fleet and ensure that each fisherman is prepared and equipped to accomplish the GSI survey goals.

At the local level, the liaisons (my wife, Irene is the one for Half Moon Bay) are responsible to ensure that the boats are on schedule and effectively recording all their sampling information. To make this happen the Port Liaisons provide each boat with a sampling kit which the fishermen use to complete all the catch, sample, and release procedures while safeguarding salmon’s wellbeing in the process.

Another participant in the program here in Half Moon Bay is the Harbor district. The GSI survey team would like to thank the harbormaster Robert Johnson, dockmaster John Draper, and their staff for helping this scientific effort by providing a safe and convenient place for fishermen to pick up and turn in their kits 24/7. Their willingness to help has greatly facilitated the smooth operation of our scientific study. Besides this accommodation, Half Moon Bay harbor (the only port without USCG coverage) often renders emergency rescues and commercial boat assistance; it’s comforting to know that these guys are there for us at any hour any day.

The GSI project is the best science I’ve seen in my 35 years of salmon fishing. The kit given to the fisherman consists of a small package of sequentially numbered sample envelopes, a package of cut squares of wax paper and blotter paper. Also included are heavy-duty shears (for clipping a very small piece of fin), a hand held GPS unit that allows the fisherman to mark and enter the coordinates of where and when the fish was caught; extra batteries for the GPS; A rolled up cloth measuring tape with inches on one side and centimeters on the other side. Last and very important, they are supplied with a knotless landing net and a thick 2-foot by 3-foot foam rubber landing platform to lessen the stress on the hooked fish. All the GSI fishermen and their crew are then trained by the port liaison on how to use these tools.

My personal favorite tool in the kit is the measuring tape. It has inches and centimeters listed on opposite sides of the tape. If you catch a 27-inch salmon, you need only to turn the tape over to find the corresponding centimeters. When you go to your little sample envelope to write down the data for each fish, it asks for the size of the fish in millimeters. Perhaps I am the only fisherman ignorant enough not to know that you need only to add a 0 to the end of the centimeter number and you have millimeters. The same envelope I am referring to then asks a number of questions that were surely designed by a scientist. It asks, “How deep?” On the surface this seems simple enough: Let’s see, I’m at 47 fathoms, so I write in forty-seven fathoms. Not! The Mini Kahuna will jump on this like a coyote on a rabbit. Actually, they (the scientists) want to know how deep on the gear was the fish caught. Another one of my favorites asks, “Adipose fin”? Your choices are “Y/N, circle one.” Huh? The adipose fin is a tiny fin located on top of the salmon between the dorsal and the tail. If the fin is there, you circle N; if it’s missing, you circle Y. Does that sound easy to you? I’ll help you out. If the fish comes from a hatchery, the adipose fin will be clipped. This fish will have a small coded wire tag inserted indicating which hatchery, when released, etc. If you catch one of these fish you want to let Fish and Game know so that they can retrieve this information valuable in relation to where the fish was caught. The rest of the questions are more user friendly like, date, time of day, boat name. I have an easier time with these.

Now that you have an idea of what’s in the kit; here’s how it goes on my boat when we get a bite. “Look! We have a pumper on that bow line! Get the net… hurry!” one of us starts running the line. When you get to the leader with the fish, old habits kick in, “Bring that net over here, dang it, I can’t bring the fish over there!” “Easy, easy, not that way, back over here. That’s better, good, good, lower the net under the fish, there, we got him!”

Now the fun begins: We quickly collect the organic material from the fish. A few scales, and a very small piece of the left pectoral fin, check to see if the adipose fin is there or not. Measure the fish, toss him back over the side. Sounds easy right? Don’t forget you have a 10 to 30-pound angry, frightened Chinook salmon who is interested in only one thing. So he does his thing, we do ours, and fortunately it works out well and back he goes looking for another lure to attack. This circus can be made more interesting by catching a double or even three.

After this show on the deck, we put the fin clip in the blotter paper, fold it over and slip it into the envelope. The scales go onto the square of wax paper and are put in the envelope. It’s then brought to the wheelhouse and the data filled out, like “how long” in millimeters. Location? Oh dang, we forgot to hit the GPS when he came on board.

“No, I hit the mark on the GPS,” says my deckhand.

“Thank God one of us is still functioning! “How deep was he?” “Fourth stop down, 12 fathoms,” and so it goes.

We deliver these precious envelopes to our Mini Kahuna at days end and she collects them from all the fishermen, downloads the information into the computer, packages them, and ships them off to the millimeter guys at the lab. There, they can genetically decipher the fin and scales to see just what river, hatchery, or wherever this particular fish came from.

Needless to say this is extremely valuable information. It provides the decision makers real data to find out which stocks are viable and which are not. This is good science collected in collaboration with the commercial salmon fisherman on the front line. Not someone in an office guessing at these numbers and making season decisions. We, the fishermen, are providing the data and the scientists are determining the origins and patterns of our king salmon.

So from one very unscientific fisherman, I suggest what will be the best outcome. We’ve conducted this survey along the central and northern California coast since May. Very few salmon have been caught. When seven boats out of Half Moon Bay fish all day and consistently come up with 1-4 salmon for the whole fleet, I believe the handwriting is on the wall. Chinook, king, salmon fishing is not viable at this time, not sport, not commercial. These same scores are being caught in other GSI ports as well. To be fair, every now and then, boats in the more northern spots like Ft. Bragg, will have a day when some fish come through and bite. But not often, and not many. There are no king salmon out there to catch. Close the seasons while we still have a few fish left.

We have seen fish stocks rebound from multi-year season closures. Take Coho for example. We have not been able to fish for or retain Coho (Silvers) for many years. Okay, a sportsboat returned to Half Moon the other day and told the game warden at the launch ramp they had four limits of Kings. Four fishermen, eight fish. Yes, they did indeed have eight fish. Seven Cohos, and one very short Chinook. Chinook are generally near the bottom, so we fish deep with commercial gear, avoiding the Coho. Sport boats usually don’t have the gear to go deep, so they’re usually fishing right where the Coho travel, Coho country.

Give these Kings a fighting chance to rebound. Anyone who’s caught one knows it’s the right thing to do. So here’s the riddle, who amongst those four sport fishermen caught the biggest fine? The guys with the two illegal Coho apiece, or the guy holding the one short Chinook?