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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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"There are still people who come in and refuse to eat farmed fish, period," said Boisen, who has worked at the 120-year-old restaurant for the last three years. "They'd rather eat frozen wild than fresh farmed salmon."

But following the rage against Chilean farmed salmon that peaked several years ago as retailers announced they would stop buying the product, known to contain toxins and pollutants, Boisen says the hype against farmed seems to be dying.

Perhaps so, for Belov has received a lukewarm response, at best, after he asked West Coast restaurants in 2008 to pledge never to serve farmed salmon again. The idea was to stick out the hard times together, boycott $4-per-pound farmed salmon, and demand that politicians and water managers work together to help restore California's wild salmon runs. Just two dozen restaurants took the pledge, Belov says, and wild salmon runs in the Central Valley continue to dwindle.

Belov acknowledges that Canadian and European open-ocean salmon farming does not directly impact local wild fish. But he believes that the abundance of farm-raised salmon in the local marketplace is not helping — and might be hampering — our salmon's recovery:

"Wild salmon need healthy rivers," he said. "Salmon are the bellwether of healthy rivers, and if farmed salmon is always available, every day of the year at low cost, then people won't care about the health of rivers. They just won't get why it matters, because they're standing in line at the grocery store and they've got their salmon. But if the grocery store fish display case had no salmon and instead had a sign saying, 'Sorry, extinct,' or 'Sorry, unavailable until we protect our rivers,' then people would get it."

As salmon teeter on the brink, government biologists estimate that rockfish populations in deep offshore waters may be slowly increasing. But whether this resource recovers or not, a new and developing fishery management plan could place it out of bounds of the small-boat fishermen, like those from whom Belov buys. This year the Department of Commerce approved a plan from the Pacific Fishery Management Council to restructure the groundfish fishery on the West Coast into a system of individually owned quotas. The proposal would allocate 90 percent of the West Coast's total allowable annual catch of rockfish, sablefish, and other assorted bottom-dwelling species to 160 trawl net vessels, leaving just 10 percent of the allowed catch to roughly 1,000 small-boat fishermen in Washington, Oregon, and California.

The argument for this plan, which is designed to take effect in January, is that individually owned quotas give every permit holder a valuable share in the resource and incentive to help preserve it. But opponents of the plan — who filed a lawsuit against the Department of Commerce on October 22 — say the system will lead to privatization of the coast's public resources.

One such opponent is Mike Hudson, a Berkeley-based fisherman who has survived the three-year absence of a significant salmon season by diversifying, targeting crab, albacore, and other local species. Hudson fears that the allotment of individually owned quotas will ultimately bar him from the water. "Because these quotas can be bought or sold, the people who will gradually buy them all up are the big processors," Hudson said. "One by one, they'll buy smaller guys out of business, and Walmart, Costco, McDonald's, and other corporations will eventually own the resource."

Of several dozen ports currently used by the groundfish fleet, all but a handful — like Coos Bay and Newport in Oregon and the wharfs in the Columbia River mouth — might be abandoned if the fleet is consolidated through the individually owned quota system, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco, which represents small-boat fishermen.

"Groundfish are important for maintaining the infrastructure of these port communities, and local economies could collapse as the fishing industry becomes consolidated," he said. "This would be a job killer."

Grader says he hopes to see the plan fine-tuned such that only people who actively fish — and not off-the-water corporations — could own a quota.

Johnson of Monterey Fish Market, a thirty-year veteran of seafood wholesaling, concedes that the plan is intended to simplify the management and protection of the resource by giving all quota owners an incentive to preserve it. But he's not convinced. "They'll be giving most of these quotas back to the trawlers that first caused so many of the problems we have now," he said.

Johnson remembers when "rockfish was the driver" of the local commercial fishery. "That was the money-maker," Johnson recalled. "It kept all the small boats on the water. We used to have three hundred small boats in the bay, all fishing rockfish, salmon, and crab, and it had a tremendous positive impact on the local community. By the markets, people sold food, tackle, and beer. The wharf was vibrant. Now we have, what, about five boats left?"

The bay's recreational party boat fleet has dwindled, too. In 1975, Erik Anfinson's father worked alongside more than 25 other boats in Fisherman's Wharf alone. Today, only seven of the boats still fish. Jim Smith Sr., who operates during the winter season out of Martinez, said the same thing has occurred in the East Bay: "Once there were thirty party boats fishing striped bass, and now there are four or five." In Berkeley, the New El Dorado 3 began running white shark cage diving trips at the Farallon Islands several years ago. From the Emeryville marina, the Superfish, another fishing vessel, has also taken up white shark watching. In Sausalito, skipper of the Salty Lady Roger Thomas has fished for a living since 1968 but now runs whale watching trips on weekends.

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