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."

Even just one decade ago, bass fishing was "wide open," Anfinson recalled. "You could get limits in a heartbeat. Now, you're lucky to get a few stripers mixed in with a few halibut."

Although commercial striper fishing is not permitted, thousands of recreational anglers in the Bay Area still try their luck at catching striped bass. But veterans say the quality of fishing is nothing remotely close to what it once was. One of these old-timers is James Smith's father, who knows the unfortunate story of the bay as well as anyone else. Although his son is banking on a future in fishing, Jim Smith Sr. speaks a gloomy prophecy: "Fishing is over with."

The elder Smith is a 63-year-old party boat captain who has operated the Happy Hooker for decades and still takes customers after striped bass, halibut, and sturgeon, as he has done for forty years. He recalls vividly when three-fish limits of striped bass were the norm, with the fish often averaging twenty pounds. From San Pablo Bay to Alcatraz to Crissy Field to Ocean Beach, the action was often so fast that the senior Smith ran two trips per day, returning to the dock before noon to pick up a fresh load of customers and returning to the hotspot for another go. For some years, Smith supplemented his income by fishing commercially for local Chinook salmon, but he dropped out of that industry in 1990.

"I could make as much in the party boat business as in salmon fishing, so I quit," he said. "But every year since then, business has dropped."

Today, the limit is two stripers per person per day, and bass heavier than twenty pounds are rare. Fish weighing ten pounds are considered large, and the bulk of the catch now consists of adolescent striped bass called "schoolies" and weighing just two to four pounds. Although fishermen can still go home with limits on a fairly regular basis, it's often a gamble. With most party boats charging more than $75 for a day of fishing, anglers today often think twice about paying for a boat ride on the Bay, Smith says.

"I sometimes call old customers of mine to see where they've been, and they've taken up golf," he said. "We once had lots of company trips with twenty people or so, but there were too many bad days and unhappy fishermen, and some of them have just stopped sending their employees fishing."

Keith Fraser tells a similar story. "Forty years ago, my God, it was unbelievable," said Fraser, the owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop, which opened in San Rafael in 1970. "We had catch-and-release days of a hundred fish regularly. You could catch all the bass you wanted, anytime. Now, fishing is good at times."

The same can be said for the populations of white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. California has prohibited commercial fishing for the species since 1917, and sport fishing — first allowed in 1954 — has always been regulated by a one-fish bag limit and strict size limits. Yet numbers provided by the Department of Fish and Game show that quality of fishing today is less than what it once was: Party boats, which have been required for decades by the Department of Fish and Game to report all sturgeon kept, took an average of 1,900 fish per year from 1966 to 1970; 525 from 1976 to 1980; 500 from 1986 to 1990; and just 240 for the past decade. Last year's catch of about 175 fish was the second lowest on record.

Today, sturgeon fishing has a reputation as a sport of tremendous patience, a pastime of long slow days on the bay. According to Fish and Game data, to catch a single keeper sturgeon, which today must measure between 46 and 66 inches, requires an average of 50 hours soaking a bait.

"Sturgeon fishing is about gone," Smith said. "I once had 27 limits of sturgeon in a day and in four days I caught 84 and each day was tied up at the dock before 12:30. Now if I get 84 in a season I'm lucky. Hell, I'm lucky to get 44 in a season."

The fish may be smaller, too. Although fifteen-foot-long white sturgeon weighing nearly a ton have reportedly been captured in the Sacramento and Columbia rivers, today 100-pound, six-foot-long fish are considered exceptionally big, and most sturgeon caught weigh less than fifty pounds. The official California state record is a 468-pounder caught in July, 1983 by Joey Palotta in San Pablo Bay.

Fraser saw that fish.

"I drove up to Crockett to see him bring it in," Fraser said. "I begged him to put it back, and I almost, almost had him convinced to release it. I worked on him for an hour, but another guy came along and said, 'You can't just let a fish like that go,' and they killed it. It had a hundred pounds of roe inside it — a billion little sturgeon. The fish was so alive, and he was so close to putting it back, and it would still be swimming out there today."

The maximum size limit on sturgeon today is a protective measure designed to preserve such individuals of breeding age. Similar "size bracket" systems, as they're known, have been in place in Oregon and Washington for several decades longer than in California. Possibly as a direct result, more larger fish are found in the river systems of the Northwest.

Fraser remembers the 1980s with the wistful sense of longing familiar to many fishermen of his age. He cites the fall of 1983, when schools of adult sturgeon gathered in the coves along the Tiburon Peninsula shoreline. One day, Fraser stood by in his own boat watching as party boats took turns anchoring and pulling in rapid limits of the fish for their customers.

"It made me sick," he said. "It's like they had no consideration of the future. Those were the good old days and you're not going to see them again."

But Marty Gingras, a biologist and sturgeon expert with the Department of Fish and Game, says the huge spike, then crash, in fishing success in the decade after sturgeon was first legalized "is a sign of overfishing."

Today, the fishery is more tightly controlled than ever, with a three-fish yearly limit per licensed angler, and Gingras says the ups and downs of the population may be a natural fluctuation. If department data tells a clear story, sturgeon populations are strongly influenced by rainfall. Sturgeon do not spawn every year, Gingras explains. Large females may spawn less than once per decade and their most successful spawning events occur during or immediately after seasons of tremendous rains and floods, events that far surpass any amount of water that water pumps may draw from the river. In the 1970s, large winter floods facilitated successful spawning that led to the abundance of adults in the 1980s that Smith and Fraser remember so vividly.

"Then, in the 1990s, there weren't a lot of sturgeon caught," Gingras said. The drought of the 1980s was likely the reason, he said. Currently, 22-inch sturgeon are abundant, the progeny of a rainy 2006, and 4-footers are also present in big numbers — fish that were born during the high natural flow years of 1996 and 1997. Sturgeon grow very slowly, and in time, Gingras says, another era of sturgeon fishing glory days may arrive.

Wholesaler Kenny Belov believes that one key to the restoration of Bay Area fisheries is smart fishery management and stewardship. Two weeks ago, Belov bought his first swordfish of the season, a fish taken in Southern California by a fisherman he knows personally.

"It was harpooned," said Belov, who launched a wholesale seafood-vending business in 2009 called TwoXSea and now sells nothing but well-sourced, traceable seafood to Bay Area restaurants. "I only sell harpooned swordfish. I sent out an e-mail to tell my clients, and that day it was gone. The next morning at two I got up and checked my e-mail, and I had messages from chefs saying, 'Hey, I'll take 15 pounds.' 'I'll take 40.' 'I'll take 10.' And I had to say, 'Sorry, it's gone.' A normal seller would have said, 'Okay, let me call the wharf and see if there's a longliner or driftnetter with anything for you."

Belov rarely buys netted fish of any kind and prefers those caught on hook, line, rod, and reel. For swordfish, the cleanest means of take with virtually zero bycatch or waste is harpoon fishing. Belov also says he personally knows the fishermen he buys from, and Belov in turn sells directly to restaurants, including Revival Bar and Kitchen in Berkeley. In doing so, he cuts out the long chain of buyers and distributors that handle most seafood as it moves from the sea to the kitchen. Belov's intention is to increase transparency and eliminate any uncertainty about a fish's origins.

"The way I do business, if the restaurant has any doubt about how or where the fish was caught, we can take out a cell phone and call the boat that it came from," Belov said. "Everything I sell is certifiable, traceable and honest. I am only buying fish directly from fishermen. In all cases I have seen the boat, been on the boat, seen the gear they use to fish, and in most cases I have also fished on the boat."

Distinctions must be made between, say, albacore tuna caught on rod and reel and those caught on longlines, or drifting rigs miles long and bearing thousands of baited hooks. Distinctions, Belov says, must also be made between rockfish caught with single baited hooks and those raked from the reefs in massive drag, or trawl, nets. Belov knows just two local boats — both in Bolinas — from which he might buy rockfish. Due to complicated restrictions and regulations, though, they haven't bothered to fish rockfish in two years. Instead of turning to other vessels that may use unsustainable practices to maintain a constant supply of rockfish, Belov simply goes without.

"I tell people, 'Sorry, we don't sell longlined rockfish so we can't get you any right now.'"

Belov says he knows of restaurants that will provide customers with misinformation in order to conceal particular details about a fish's origin, such as how or where it was caught or even what species of fish it is. Rockfishes, which consist of more than fifty species in the genus Sebastes, are often served simply as "cod" or "snapper."

"Places like that are scared to put 'yelloweye rockfish' tacos on their menu," Belov said. "They'd much rather say 'local cod' or 'Pacific cod' tacos. Those are the names that sell. It's marketing 101. But I'm not interested in running a business of telling lies. If I don't have it, it's because I don't know what it is or where it came from."

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.

"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.

"It's harder than ever now to make a living," Thomas said. "The king of the fisheries was salmon, but that's over."

Anfinson recently took a job on a cross-Bay commuter ferry. He also has diversified his Bass Tub business by hosting weddings, on-the-Bay parties, and ash dispersals at sea.

"I need to make ends meet," he said. "Business is dying. It's not the glory days anymore."

In an April paper entitled "The Future of Pacific Island Fisheries," Robert Gillett and Ian Cartwright suggested that we might be on the brink of the end of fishing as we know it. By 2035, the authors write, open-ocean species, including yellowfin and bigeye tunas, will have experienced significant declines from their current reduced populations and that canned tuna will no longer be cheap. The authors also believe that coastal species and reef fishes will drop far below current population levels, due in part to "uncontrollable fishing effort."

The situation here in California may not be quite as dire. A 2009 article in Science coauthored by Professor Ray Hilborn of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington reports that California's fisheries are among the least overfished in the world. "That report didn't get much press because media is all about doom and gloom today," Johnson of Monterey Fish Market said. "Relatively, we're in good shape. California still has some fish left, unlike a lot of developed parts of the world."

Mike Hudson also remains optimistic and even believes the Sacramento's severely injured salmon run will recover. "It depends on how we decide to manage our water flows, but I'm thinking there are good things for salmon in the next few years," he said. "Salmon are so resilient. They have such a short life cycle, so all we need is water in our rivers and we'll have a million fish again in just three years."

But to fishermen like the Smiths, the future of fishing is a more complicated network of possibilities. The son sees a potential future in sharks, but his dad is reluctant to go that way. "I don't want to fish sharks," his father said. "Striped bass and salmon have been my staple. Sharks are kind of like bottom of the barrel. But next season I might have to do it."

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