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Is San Francisco Bay Fished Out?

Not yet. But with salmon off-limits, and catches of striped bass, halibut, rockfish, sturgeon, and other fish way down, Bay Area fishermen, fish wholesalers, and seafood restaurants face an uncertain future.



Nearly ten large sharks lie on the wooden dock at the Berkeley Marina, trickles of blood leaking from their gills and a buzz of excitement in the evening air. A dozen fishermen unload their rods and lunch coolers from the boat — plus several more sharks — while a deckhand dressed in slickers begins to fillet the fish one by one on a cleaning table. He deftly cuts the meat from the cartilage and gristle, skins each piece, packs the skinless snow-white slabs into plastic bags, and tosses the heads and carcasses into the water. While their sharks are rendered into pan-sized pieces, the fishermen wait, some drinking beer, all admiring the length and girth of the fish still at their feet. The largest is a sevengill shark more than seven feet long and perhaps 150 pounds.

So guesses James Smith Jr., the 37-year-old barrel-chested captain of the recreational party fishing boat California Dawn, the vessel that caught the fish. Smith has been fishing for sharks in the deep holes of central San Francisco Bay for much of the summer and fall. Today, October 29, was the last trip that he would make for the season — and it was a smashing success. The sharks are mostly sevengills, plus several four-foot leopard sharks and a 60-pound soupfin.

"These fish are excellent eating," Smith tells his customers, who have paid $100 each for the day of fishing. "I often barbecue the meat, or bread and deep-fry it."

Sevengill shark, especially, is as good as anything else in the bay, Smith swears. But it's nothing like salmon. Halibut, too, would give shark meat a run for its money, as would striped bass, another highly popular game fish in San Francisco Bay. Catching these more conventional species, though, takes more effort today than ever before; there are fewer fish and more fishermen in pursuit. So, this summer, to escape the crowds of boats pursuing halibut on the Berkeley Flats and striped bass near Alcatraz, Smith set his sights for the first time on what many fishermen still call "trash fish."

In years past, all the way back to the day that Smith first bought his vessel almost twenty years ago, halibut, striped bass, lingcod, and, more than anything else, salmon were the prized quarry of the Bay Area's waters. Every spring, summer, and fall, Smith ran boatloads of fishermen onto the bay or out the Golden Gate to pursue them. So did hundreds of other commercial and recreational boats. Below, in the deep, dark holes of the muddy estuarine waters, it was no secret that large sharks swam, but relatively few fishermen cared to tangle with these beasts when salmon could be had.

But today they can't be had. Salmon have been off limits since 2008, when fisheries managers closed the season for the first time in state history due to low 2007 returns of spawning fish in the Sacramento River. While fishermen took advantage of a short and geographically limited season in the summer of 2010, for the most part no one has fished for salmon for three years in a row — and for good reason. The Chinook salmon run of the Sacramento River, once a tremendously abundant resource that provided jobs for thousands of people and a local source of wild fish for millions of Americans, crashed disastrously last decade. Fishing was banned, the fleet was grounded, and abruptly out-of-work fishermen were forced to explore new options.

They promptly swarmed the bay in 2008 to target California halibut. Compared to other species, the local population of halibut is relatively healthy by most all accounts but, in just two years of intensely increased fishing pressure, some claim to have observed a reduction in size and numbers of local halibut. Smith has seen this so-called fishing "effort shift" since the loss of the salmon season. So has Paul Johnson, a fish wholesaler and owner of Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley; Keith Fraser, a veteran bait shop owner in San Rafael; and Kenny Belov, who sells fish wholesale and owns Fish Restaurant in Sausalito.

"After the salmon disappeared, everyone fished for halibut because that's all there was," Belov said. "Because of that pressure, we saw a huge decline in the halibut in the Bay and there were a lot more smaller ones this year, and we all played a role in that. When one thing is gone, fishermen will always go and find something else to catch."

Some in the fishing and seafood industries now worry that the loss of the salmon industry could spark the beginnings of a domino effect — one fishery after another crashing due to consolidated and increased fishing efforts.

Erik Anfinson believes it's already happening. "The Bay is getting hammered now," said Anfinson, owner and operator of the Bass Tub, one of the oldest party boats in San Francisco. "This bay has had so much fishing pressure for the last three summers since the salmon closed that that now halibut scores are dropping because the bay is getting overfished," he said. "Some people are starting to fish for sharks, but who knows how long that fishery will last."

Anfinson is 38 and began working as a party boat deckhand for his dad when he was just 10. "My dad had two boats back then," Anfinson said. "That's how good fishing was. He ran two trips almost every single day. Now, I see everything changing and it's all for the worse."

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