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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.



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Or it's because the fish are simply gone. Several rockfish species almost are — like cowcod, canary, and bocaccio rockfish. These species were heavily overfished decades ago and are now on the long, slow road to recovery — an especially slow process for rockfishes, which can take many years to reach sexual maturity and may live more than a century. Commercial catch totals provided by the Pacific Fishery Management Council reflect the drop in abundance: In 1982, the state's fleet — mostly trawlers — weighed in 25,000 tons of fish. That was the heyday of the industry, the year that landings peaked for many rockfish species. Then the numbers crashed, and by 1988 the catch totaled 13,000 tons. In 1994, commercial boats landed only 8,000 tons and in 2000 just 2,500. For the past decade catch totals among almost all rockfish species have hovered near zero.

Sacramento River salmon are almost gone, too — though for reasons much different than those that have beleaguered rockfish populations. Most ecologists and fishermen agree that fishing pressure did not cause their abrupt disappearance last decade. Rather, experts have almost universally blamed the salmon's collapse — and that of striped bass — on mismanagement of the freshwater flows in the Sacramento River, where salmon and stripers spawn. In the southern Delta, near Tracy, two large pipes currently shuttle water southward to feed a growing human population in Southern California and a thirsty agricultural industry in the San Joaquin Valley. A particularly abrupt jump in pumping rates occurred between 1999 and 2002, according to figures from the Department of Water Resources. The crash of the fall-run Chinook followed closely, plunging what was once the largest and the most economically important of the Sacramento River's four annual Chinook salmon runs into near-extinction.

According to data compiled by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, each autumn for decades an average of between 150,000 and 300,000 Chinook salmon returned to the river to spawn. Even following the construction of Shasta Dam in 1945, the fishery stabilized into long-term renewability. Tens of thousands of people along the West Coast interacted with this resource, including commercial fishermen, processors, tackle shop owners, chefs, retailers, and recreational anglers. The ocean fishing season traditionally ran from late-winter to late-fall. Recreational fishing was allowed in the bay and rivers, and the salmon still always came back. The highest Sacramento salmon return in recorded history was not long ago, in 2002 — a freakishly successful spawning event of almost 800,000 fish.

But when just 88,000 salmon returned in the fall of 2007, the 2008 fishing season was closed for the first time ever. The next two spawning runs would be record low returns, and excepting a limited summer fishing season of 2010, ocean salmon fishing in the Bay Area has become a thing of the past.

Statistics on water removal from the Delta and official salmon return counts appear to tell just what happened: For fifteen years, beginning in the early 1990s, water export rates increased slowly, then jumped abruptly between 1999 and 2002. Three years later — a time span that reflects the length of the life cycle of a Chinook salmon — the annual fish returns began to plummet. Still, southward water exports increased and in 2006 hit a record high of 6.2 million acre feet — two times the early 1990s rate of 3 million acre feet per year. Three years later, in 2009, the fall-run salmon return hit a record low of 39,530 fish — one third the 122,000 spawning fish that the council considers the lowest sustainable spawning rate.

Next up will either be recovery or extinction. Although the Pacific Fishery Management Council predicted last February that 245,000 Chinooks would return this fall, the same modeling methodology was used in 2008 to predict a 2009 return of 121,000 salmon. But this methodology was thrown into widespread doubt when the 2009 numbers petered out at not even 40,000 fish. This season's actual fish numbers are still being tallied at several counting stations along the Sacramento and its tributaries and will not be officially released until some time in December or January. At the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Red Bluff, deputy project manager Brett Galyean gives a tentative and relatively promising synopsis: "I'd characterize this year as better than last," he said. "There are more fish in the river, and I'd say we're on the upswing."

In the absence of local wild Chinook, wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Alaska appears regularly in stores and restaurants. So does farmed salmon from around the world. Salmon-farming operations, usually associated with chemical use and thick clouds of parasites commonly called sea lice that thrive amidst the unnaturally high densities of caged fish, seem to have had a direct negative effect on wild salmon that live in surrounding waters. In the Broughton Archipelago of Vancouver Island, for example, several pink salmon runs have virtually vanished following the rise of the local salmon farming industry.

But executive chef Devon Boisen at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley keeps salmon on the menu year-round. He often buys Alaskan Chinook for top dollar — whole fish run $25 per pound wholesale — but when availability of wild salmon wanes, he relies on British Columbian farmed fish to fill the gap. Boisen believes "a certain amount of misinformation" has given farmed salmon a bad rap.

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