Uncertain salmon season launches in Bodega Bay

The rising hum of activity in the port of Bodega Bay over recent days reveals an unexpected level of interest in the commercial salmon season that starts today, despite a three-month delay and what’s been an extremely grim outlook for the beleaguered fishery.

A large proportion of the local fleet has been gearing up to head out to open ocean, ready to drop their lines and test the waters. But the satisfied, even boisterous enthusiasm that once characterized the marinas during preseasons past has diminished during years of struggle in the fishing industry, some say.

A time that once carried the promise of hard work and dependable results now brims with uncertainty.

“It just isn’t there anymore, the old vim and vigor, and the excitement about getting ready for an opener, and this kind of stuff,” veteran fisherman Dan Kammerer, 75, said, recalling laughter and jokes that used to be shared along the docks. “It just isn’t fun anymore.”

Chinook salmon, also called king salmon, were once a prized staple of the North Coast’s fishing grounds, ranked just ahead or behind Dungeness crab in annual landings. But the population has been in severe decline, due in part to historic drought and disrupted ocean conditions that have reduced the survival of young salmon in freshwater streams and coastal waters.

After two dreadful seasons, state and federal wildlife biologists last spring forecast the lowest chinook salmon stocks off the Pacific Coast since 2009, when both sport and commercial fisheries were closed for the second consecutive year.

As a result, this year’s commercial salmon season, which normally would start in May, opened only in the area south of Pigeon Point, located near Santa Cruz.

The coastal region from Pigeon Point to Point Arena, which includes key ports in Half Moon Bay, San Francisco and Bodega Bay, opens to commercial salmon fishing Tuesday, running through Aug. 29 and then from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30. The waters between Point Arena and Arcata in Humboldt County also will open for the month of September.

Off the Sonoma Coast, the season is less than half as long as usual.

North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, used the season delay to call for congressional disaster funding to aid struggling fishermen and affected businesses hit hard by last year’s curtailed Dungeness and rock crab seasons, which were declared fishery disasters in the last days of the Obama administration.

Huffman joined other advocates at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to celebrate the launch of the commercial salmon season and to call for action.

While a few fishermen headed south to try for salmon in May or June, more continued fishing for crab longer than they otherwise would.

The crab season that ended June 30 was remarkably strong, rebounding from a terrible 2015-16 season with landings above the most recent 10-year average.

But with the salmon season so badly shortened and the forecast so bleak, some predicted that many local fishermen would decide against participating this year, wary even of recouping the hundreds of dollars each typically invests in gear, fuel and ice for the opener.

Joe Mantua, who works a ranch just across the Oregon border when he’s not fishing, was bailing hay Monday, after deciding not to chase salmon this year.

“I’ve always hit the beginning of the season. That’s what I did,” Mantua said.

“But the little season they gave us - so little, so late - cost-effective-wise I just didn’t feel that it was worth it for me.”

Many others, however, decided at least to make an effort, in part because of what longtime fisherman Lorne Edwards said was “a few fish off the city that are getting guys excited.”

Reports from charter boats and other sport fishermen also suggest that salmon may be more abundant, at least in some areas, than had been anticipated.

Among them are Rick Powers, captain of the New Sea Angler party boat in Bodega Bay, who said dozens of guests had caught their daily limit of two in recent days, including some that would be legal commercial size.

“These fish are just absolutely the best quality salmon I’ve seen in years,” Powers said Monday. “They’re feeding on krill. They’re bright red. They’re absolutely beautiful fish.”

The end of the crab season also means lots of fishermen are in search of something to do.

“We’ve got to try,” skipper Dick Ogg said. “We’ve got to try to produce product if we’ve got the opportunity.”

But Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, said he was afraid many of the fish north of San Francisco might be too small for his members.

Commercial fishermen can’t keep anything under 27 inches long, while sport fishers can keep salmon as short as 20 inches.

“Not everybody’s hooting and hollering” in their eagerness to get fishing, said Tom Graham, 46.

“They’re just hoping to make a trip.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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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