Bodega Bay salmon fishing ‘very productive’ so far this season, thanks to cold waters. How long will the boom last?
On a late morning in early July, Dick Ogg stared off into a sea of gray. The 69-year-old Sonoma County local had just departed from Bodega Bay for five days of commercial salmon fishing off the coast. Heavy fog, rough waves and strong winds made this a bad time for a phone call with a reporter. He was able to talk for a few minutes though.
Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, has lived in Sonoma County for 62 years and has fished for crab and salmon along the coast for more than 40 of those years.
“The ocean conditions right now are probably the best we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” he said. Though the wind made it difficult to fish, a spurt of particularly cold water temperatures have attracted more salmon.
Ogg unloaded his five-day catch in Bodega Bay on a Wednesday, about 3,500 pounds or so, “right in the middle” of the pack, he said. At $6.50 per pound, the haul comes out to more than $20,000. So far this season, “everybody’s done very well … this has been a very productive year.”
The bounty comes from colder-than-normal waters, caused by a process called “upwelling,” when winds bring nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean up toward the surface.
This upwelling has brought record-breaking numbers of anchovies to the Central and Northern California coast in recent years, which salmon feed on. In the short-term, increased upwelling is great for salmon fishing. But climate scientist Nate Mantua urged a wider perspective.
“The North Pacific as a whole is extremely warm right now, and it has been most of this year, even while this narrow band of habitat that our salmon are using along the coast has been cold and productive,” he said.
“Over the last decade we've had a series of anomalous conditions,” said Tessa Hill, an oceanographer at the Bodega Marine Lab. “And this year, the strange condition is that the upwelling is even stronger and the water is even colder than it was in previous years.”
Upwelling is not a new phenomenon along this part of the California coast. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why the state’s fishing industry is so lucrative. But too much upwelling can cause problems by increasing the acidity of the surface water. Bill Sydeman, president of the Farallon Institute, put it succinctly, “moderate is best.”
But moderate is not the direction we are headed. Some scientists think climate change is actually increasing upwelling — hotter air in the Central Valley pushes west over the Pacific Ocean in the form of wind, and those winds churn up the ocean, bringing the deeper, colder water up to the surface.
Others aren’t so sure, arguing that the only reason we’re seeing such strong upwelling this year is because of the La Niña climate pattern. During La Niña events, upwelling tends to increase off the west coast of the Americas. These winds often lead to drought in the southern U.S. and heavy rains and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
“We’re trying to interpret this thing in real time,” Hill said. “Like studying a moving train while you’re on the train.”
While there are multiple systems — ocean acidification, La Niña weather patterns, rising global temperatures — at play, there is no consensus on the reason for this year’s upwelling. There is however, broader agreement among marine scientists that conditions will become less predictable and more extreme going forward.
“The systems are complex. Predicting and understanding exactly what they're going to do from year to year can be hard,” Hill said. “But that doesn't mean that we're unclear about whether or not climate change is impacting the coast, because it absolutely is.”
A big question on the minds of many marine scientists is, how long will bountiful fishing last as overall ocean temperatures continue to increase?
Coastal ecosystems that experience significant upwelling “are basically holding back the broader warming,” Mantua said. “How long is this going to hold up? And can salmon continue to find productive habitat in the ocean around these special places that exist along the West Coast?”
For now, it doesn’t seem like anyone has the answer.
“There's a lot of uncertainty about how the ocean is going to look next year and the next five years and the next 10 years,” Mantua said. “Other than, you know, we're on track for a warmer world. And most of the global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is happening in the upper ocean.”
For Ogg, it’s futile trying to predict the future. He doesn’t know what the long-term trajectory of the Bodega Bay salmon fishing industry is. But he does know that he has 15 more days out on his boat, the Karen Jeanne, this season, and he wants to take full advantage of every one.
“Of course, I’m biased, but it’s the best in the world,” he said. “You’re not going to get anything better than the North Coast’s California king salmon. It is the primo of the primo. And we all work very hard to keep the product absolutely exceptional.”
Hill, the oceanographer at the Bodega Marine Lab, has spent a lot of time around fishing communities. She has seen how they’ve had to adapt to changing ocean conditions year-to-year.
“We should be working very hard to slow down that rate of change,” she said, “and the only way we can do that is by reducing fossil fuel emissions.”
“I think one of the dangers is that if we tell people, it's so complicated, it's so hard to predict, it's not under our control, then it doesn't feel like they can do anything about it. The hard thing about this is there actually is absolutely something we can do about this, and we're not doing it.”
You can reach Staff Writer Elena Neale-Sacks at email@example.com. On Twitter @elenaneale17.