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Sport anglers can access Sonoma Coast to fish, Sonoma County health officer says

Hundreds of recreational fishermen and women denied access to the coast under stay-at-home and park closure orders will be free to hit the waves beginning Friday with the reopening of the county-run Westside Boat Launch, Spud Point Marina and neighboring Mason's Marina, all in Bodega Bay.

The relaxation of the park closure order, authorized by Sonoma County health officer Dr. Sundari Mase, is framed as an effort to allow anglers to harvest fish as food. But it's bound to unleash pent-up hunger for the ocean air and surf that followed the complete closure of all coastal parks, public beaches and, until now, the infrastructure that allows boaters to get out on the water.

'I guarantee you that the world's going to be very happy to go salmon fishing,' said Ken Elie, owner of Outdoor Pro Shop in Cotati, whose online customers have been clamoring for an opportunity to take advantage of the sport salmon season, which opened May 1, alongside the groundfish season.

County officials are still mulling avenues for loosening restrictions on access to coastal lands, but decided to take action on fishing access in part because of its connection to food procurement.

The nature of the sport lends itself to the current mood, said 5th District County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents coastal communities and worked to fast-track access for sport anglers.

'How could you be more socially distanced than on a boat in the middle of the ocean? It was one of those understandable, commonsense frustrations,' she said. 'People were saying, 'I don't understand why we're not allowed to do this.''

It remains to be seen how the public will respond to the reopening of the boat launch and the two marinas. State and county park rangers, aided by other law enforcement officials, have already had a challenging time keeping visitors away from closed parks and beaches on the Sonoma Coast.

When county officials authorized walk-in and bike-in access to inland parks last week, they excluded coastal parks because of the difficulty of keeping visitors from outside the area from coming to the Sonoma County. Reopening the boat launch and marinas and related parking areas raises the question as to whether they will prove a chink in the armor, especially with so few other ocean ports open to sport fishing.

Bert Whitaker, Sonoma County Regional Parks director, said the large majority of anglers who use the three reopened facilities are locals, from Sonoma County, based on fishing groups and anecdotal evidence.

He said the sport fishing facilities were 'a bite-sized, sort of time-sensitive thing' that Mase found reasonable to open for the purpose of food procurement, with limits designed to inhibit viral transmission.

Any fishing must be done singly or in household groups to maintain shelter-in-place protections. Participants must maintain at least a 6-foot distance from others in public areas and carry a face covering for use in situations when it's not possible to maintain proper physical distance. Before entering a park or park-run facility, they also must assess themselves for recent exposure or symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and leave without entering if they may pose a risk of infecting others.

Only the Westside Boat Launch and the two marinas are affected by the new order. Doran Beach and the Sport Fishing Center will remain closed.

Bathrooms — except for portable restrooms — and fish cleaning stations will also remain closed.

The recreational salmon opener, initially scheduled April 1 but delayed a month because of port disruptions as the pandemic unfolded, typically draws a crush of people to Bodega Bay, even though spring weather is dicey out on the open water and the salmon don't arrive in large numbers until later in summer.

The marinas are bustling with docked boats sliding out for a first try at some King salmon, while towed boats stretch back along Westside Road almost to Highway 1 while anglers wait their turn to launch.

Marina Supervisor Noah Wagner said about 70 percent of the 400 to 450 boats typically tied up at the county marinas are sport fishing boats, their owners among the more than 1.6 million people who purchase California sport fishing licenses in most years, according to state Fish and Wildlife records.

Salmon is a huge draw for local fishing enthusiasts, said Elie, the Outdoor Pro Shop owner.

'In the big picture of the fishing tackle world, there's nothing else that's even close to the participation rate that salmon has, not even a close distant second,' Elie said. 'I've been in business close to 30  years, and year in and year out, salmon is close to 50 percent of my revenues.'

John Morozumi, a retired Sebastopol pharmacist who co-owns a boat at Spud Point Marina, said it's been frustrating to be unable to get to it for maintenance and to swap out the crab gear still set from last winter.

But he and several other anglers said they were completely comfortable waiting to go fishing in the interest of public health, particularly given the typically rough water this time of year.

'Of course this is frustrating because I'm paying for my marina fees,' said Stephen Boyd, a registered nurse who lives in Bodega Bay. 'But we have to do this. Whereas, like everybody else, I'm champing at the bit to go fishing. I realize they're doing the right thing.'

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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