Big year for reeling in Chinook salmon

09/12/2019

The Chinook are bountiful in California this season, with preliminary numbers from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife indicating that the commercial catch will be 50 percent above predictions. 

The good news, said Kandice Morgenstern, a marine biologist with the department, is likely due to improved ocean and river conditions. The adult salmon found in the ocean this year are the first to have benefitted from the heavy rains in 2016. Numbers of anchovies and sardines—which the salmon rely on—have also rebounded after suffering from warmer ocean temperatures caused by the El Niño conditions of recent years.  

Fish and Wildlife had some clues to the rebound this spring: the fall run out to sea from the Sacramento River—the largest of several runs the department monitors—saw 380,000 adult salmon. By comparison, the highest forecast from the previous three years was 299,600, in 2016.

The department won’t release the final numbers of fish caught until after the season ends in mid-October, but Ms. Morgenstern said she hasn’t seen numbers this high since 2012, when fishermen brought 215,585 Chinook to shore in California. 

The improved catch has taken down wild salmon prices to $20 per pound or less, compared to prices in recent years of up to $35 per pound. Fishermen are making up the difference by catching more fish.

Josh Churchman, one of just four commercial salmon fishermen who live in Bolinas, said the local harvest has been a noticeable improvement. He’s seen a lot of fish that are slightly too small, but that promises an even better harvest next season, he said. 

In Bodega Bay, where he said the catch was the best in the area this season, he has heard of big boats catching as many as 100 fish per day. Nevertheless, he’s returned from a few trips out of Bolinas Bay this year with 10 fish—a good day.  

“Bolinas is a really good spot, especially in July, August and September,” he said. “We are the next stop before the Golden Gate for the spawning fish, the last place they see the ocean before they swim back up the Delta as adults.” 

His best year, Mr. Churchman recounted, was in 1988, when his boat—carrying three fishermen with a fishing rod each—caught 763 pounds of salmon, which they sold for $3.50 a pound. “Nothing could beat that,” he reminisced. 

Chinook stocks crashed a decade ago, resulting in the closure of the fishery in 2008 and 2009. There was a limited re-opening in 2010 following a few wetter years, though drought conditions have continued to prevent a full comeback. 

Last year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets the regulations for fisheries along the West Coast, determined that two main California stocks of Chinook were over-fished, which triggered increased conservation measures. 

“That determination happens when abundance falls below a certain threshold in the management,” Ms. Morgenstern said. “However, we are coming out of a severe drought and that determination is not necessarily due to overfishing.” 

She continued, “In response, there were extra precautions taken this year above our minimum conservation requirements, including setting higher target numbers for the adults we wanted to see returning to the river systems and limiting the number of days fished.”

The number of days open for commercial Chinook fishing this year went up from last year due to better forecasts. The season in West Marin opened in mid-May and will remain open until mid-October; last year it was open from July through October. 

Mr. Churchman emphasized that salmon fishing remains a fickle enterprise. “Salmon fishing should be done from dawn to dusk, if you want to do it right, because in the same week, on Monday [the bites come] first thing, and then on Thursday, it was a late-evening bite,” he said.

After a lifetime of fishing local waters, Mr. Churchman said his strategy is either to go out once in the morning, or just watch for the right conditions: “Birds on the water, rip tides, water color. And if you don’t catch anything, reel up and try somewhere else.”