Bleak salmon season awaits commercial fleet as Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Festival returns
Bodega Bay will host its 44th annual Fisherman’s Festival this weekend, celebrating the ocean-going traditions that long supported this coastal village long reliant on its harvest from the sea.
The two-day event, capped Sunday by the Blessing of the Fleet, coincides with the historic start of the salmon season, a catch still critical to the community’s prosperity.
This year, however, like many in recent memory, commercial anglers on the North Coast await word of just how poor that king salmon harvest is expected to be.
“It is bleak,” said veteran fisherman Dave Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “I’m referring to it as ‘scraps of a season.’?”
California’s salmon season has been troubled before. But this year, the state’s historic drought has exacted what may be its steepest toll, decimating a generation of fish a few years ago in shrunken streams, with far fewer adults now showing up to spawn.
West Coast fishery managers, who are meeting this week in Sacramento, will decide in the coming days where and when commercial salmon trollers can drop their lines.
Even under the best of scenarios, there will be no commercial salmon fishing in California north of Santa Cruz County until at least August, if the North Coast fishery opens at all. The commercial salmon fishery is one of the North Coast’s top two fisheries, along with Dungeness crab. A sharp ?reduction in the catch can mean a loss of millions of dollars for fishermen and the industry they support.
Under three alternatives the council will consider, the maximum amount of fishing that would be allowed off the Sonoma Coast is two months, August and September. Along the Mendocino and southern Humboldt coasts, the most permissive option allows for salmon harvesting in September only.
“I can’t say this more bluntly: We are facing a true calamity here in California,” said North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “Many families who have relied on the mighty Pacific for their livelihood are on the brink of economic ruin. For the last year, two years, it’s been crab. This year, it’s salmon and sardines. Our most magnificent fishery resources have gone from abundance to scarcity.”
The commercial fleet was forewarned weeks ago of a grim outlook for salmon this year - the worst since 2008 and 2009, when sport and commercial salmon fishing were prohibited off the entire California coast for two consecutive seasons, and the latest in a string of recent catastrophes that have befallen North Coast fisheries.
Opening a hearing of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture last week, McGuire, the committee chairman, described the fishing fleet’s plight as “the slow death of a thousand cuts.”
Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, said some local skippers would head south this summer to see if they could catch some salmon. “They don’t have a choice, really,” Edwards said.
But “everybody’s pretty down,” he said.
North Coast Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman are among ?17 western lawmakers petitioning congressional leadership for federal relief funds in the wake of official fishery disasters declared for nine commercial salmon and crab seasons on the West Coast since 2014.
California’s delayed Dungeness crab seasons of the past two years were among those nine failed seasons. The commercial crab landings valued above $66 million statewide in 2014 and more than $10 million in Bodega Bay. The delay in the ?2015-16 season cut gross sales by an estimated 44 percent, according to preliminary figures. The current season ends ?June 30 south of Mendocino County, and no figures were available this week on the level of the catch.
In good years, North Coast fishermen rely on both crab and salmon to meet hefty costs and sock away some savings. Bad years in both seasons can spell economic ruin for many.
No federal money has yet been allocated for those who’ve suffered in recent years, despite the disaster declarations and “the severe hardships that these rural, commercial and recreational fishing-dependent communities continue to experience,” legislators wrote in a joint letter Tuesday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
Increasingly, North Coast fishing towns such as Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay have relied on tourism to fuel their economies. An estimated ?4 million visitors annually now come to the Sonoma Coast.
And the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Festival has grown into a signature event for tourists. It includes the annual parade of fishing boats that motor out into Bodega Harbor once a year to be blessed for good fortune and fishing ahead.
The all-volunteer event is a fundraiser for community nonprofits and has played an important role in supporting those in the fishing industry who are struggling, festival chairwoman Brooks Rooney said.
The festival last year donated $10,000 for grocery cards and pantry food to help fishermen and contract deckhands, who do not qualify for unemployment.
The organization hopes this year to donate $8,000 to the Fishermen’s Marketing Association to help fund the release of a quarter million baby hatchery salmon into Bodega Bay next month. The project was organized by the Golden Gate Salmon Association, in coordination with the marketing association. Both are also hosting fundraisers this month.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter ?@MaryCallahanB.