Meager salmon catch one of worst seasons for Sonoma County fishermen

Commercial salmon fishing got off to a slow start in May due to windy weather and has stayed in a slump that local fishermen are blaming on unusually warm ocean water in one of the worst king salmon seasons in memory.

Some Bodega Bay-based anglers gave up rather than scramble for meager catches of underweight and undersized salmon, despite the relatively high dockside prices of $5 to ?$8 a pound.

Seafood distributors, meanwhile, are bringing in fresh, wild salmon from Fort Bragg and the Klamath River region in California to as far north as Alaska and Canada. “There’s always some fish around,” said Michael Lucas of North Coast Fisheries, a Santa Rosa wholesaler.

On Monday, local stores had salmon on ice for $16 to $20 a pound.

But for local fishermen, the season is a bust, with the catch through August at 30 percent of last year’s harvest and equally shy of the forecast for the current season.

“It’s just not worth it,” said Chris Lawson, a 40-year fishing veteran, who said he quit going out for salmon in mid-July and is now awaiting the start of Dungeness crab season this fall.

Many cited the abnormally warm ocean water, running as high as 60 degrees this year compared with the low 50s that salmon prefer. Lawson called it “one of the worst seasons ever.”

John Largier, an oceanographer at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, said the ocean has run “anomalously warm” since the end of June, a trend he attributed not to the developing El Niño but to a “warm blob” of water that has persisted in the eastern Pacific Ocean for the last two to three years. It is likely related to the same atmospheric conditions that account for California’s four-year drought, Largier said.

The warm water likely diminished the food supply for salmon, a voracious predator that feeds on krill, sardines, squid, herring, rockfish - almost anything small enough to be ingested. Warm water cuts down the quantity and quality of the salmon food supply, resulting in a diet that Jennifer Simon, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist, described as “eating celery.”

Lawson said he thinks the salmon dived to colder water, as much as 1,000 feet down, beyond the reach of anglers’ gear.

At this time of year, fishermen are usually hauling in 25- to 30-pound salmon that have been fattening up all summer, but those are “few and far between,” said Mike Svedise, owner of the family-operated Santa Rosa Seafood. And they’re hooking a lot of “shakers,” the term for undersized fish that anglers shake off the line.

The catch is sporadic, with boats bringing in up to 15 salmon one day and as few as two fish the next day, he said.

“I haven’t seen it this bad in 15 years,” said Svedise, who is operating only one or two of his company’s four salmon boats at Bodega Bay.

Lucas, the distributor, called it “scratch fishing,” noting that local anglers used to enjoy landing 50 to 100 salmon on numerous days in past years.

Salmon landed in the San Francisco area, which includes Bodega Bay, are averaging 10.5 pounds this year, compared with 12 to 13 pounds in recent years, Simon said. “Unfortunately, I think that is the story for our season,” she said.

Commercial anglers had landed 20,775 chinook salmon - also known as king salmon - through Aug. 31 in the region from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County, according to state records. In the same period last year, the catch was 67,454 salmon and in 2013 it numbered 136,238 fish.

The statewide salmon catch through August was 96,878, compared with 151,367 last year and 285,592 in 2013.

Anglers are wondering what happened to the 650,000 king salmon said to be in the ocean off the North Coast this year, and Simon said local catch was one-third of what was expected. The condition of the king salmon population won’t be known until the spawning run just beginning in the Klamath and Sacramento rivers is counted, she said.

The appetite of folks who feast on the salmon’s red flesh is unabated.

Dee Skikos, general manager of Andy’s Produce near Sebastopol, said he gets daily calls asking for wild, local salmon, which he gets six days a week from Bodega Bay. “It comes right in and goes right out,” he said.

Andy’s is selling salmon steaks and fillets for $15.99 to $16.99 a pound, he said.

The Whole Foods store on Yulupa Avenue in Santa Rosa gets salmon trucked down from Fort Bragg, and was selling fillets for $19.99 a pound Monday, said Nate Smith, a meat cutter. The store also carries farmed salmon, but most customers choose the wild kings, he said.

The commercial salmon season ends Sept. 30 in most areas, with the zone from Point Reyes to Point San Pablo remaining open on weekdays for an additional two weeks.

Lawson called 2015 one of the worst in his 40 years of salmon fishing, but said vagaries come with the profession. “You take the bad with the good,” he said. “Not every year is gonna be a banner year.”

What worries him is how the ongoing drought will impact future seasons. Without plentiful rain, salmon heading for their spawning grounds this year will be “going back to basically dry streambeds,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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