2011 Commercial salmon fishing season was promising

The radio begins to crackle seconds after the Marlin arrives at the outskirts of the salmon fishing fleet about three miles from the coast of Stinson Beach.
“Fish and Game is here. Fish and Game on scene,” say the disembodied voices, as Lt. Andy Roberts and his crew from the state Department of Fish and Game smile at each other, happy to have a job to do.
It’s nearing the end of the first commercial salmon fishing season in three years. The ocean is crammed with trollers piloted by seasoned fisherman hoping to score a final catch, under the watchful eye of state officials making sure they do so legally. It’s been a “so-so” year, they all agree, but one that brings hope that salmon fishing in California has returned for good.
“It’s just nice to be fishing here again,” said Capt. Greg Ambiel, 43, as fish and game warden Ryan Thiem dug through Ambiel’s catch measuring the salmon’s size. Ambiel was among a dozen salmon boats on the unusually calm Pacific Ocean on Sept. 30. “Most of us guys have barely squeaked by.”
By the end of August, the most recent totals available, commercial fishermen in California had spent a combined 5,105 days fishing salmon since the season opened in May, catching more than 68,900 Chinook salmon along the state coast. While the commercial season ended Friday, recreational fishermen can continue catching salmon until the end of the month.
The 2-year-long hiatus, sparked by an alarmingly low salmon count

in 2009, cost the state more than $255 million in economic activity and roughly 2,263 jobs. It also resulted in $170 million in aid from the federal government that was sent mostly to fishermen who were prevented from making a living due to the ban.
But this year, the gloom was behind the fishermen as they once again took to the ocean in search of the West Coast’s iconic fish.
Both fisherman and state officials said that while the 2011 catch was low compared to other full seasons, the price paid for salmon was on average higher, due to the two-year-long ban. Reports from the coast had fishermen selling salmon anywhere from $4 to $8 per pound, depending on the day it was caught.
Biologists from the Pacific Fishery Management Council had predicted that more than 739,000 salmon would be found off the coast this year, and more than 377,000 headed up the Sacramento River to spawn. The forecast was triple the number from last year and convinced biologists that the fishery could reopen to commercial and recreational anglers.
In 2009, a mere 39,000 Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon were thought to have returned to the Sacramento River Basin, an all-time low that prompted the closure of the commercial fishing season.
“It’s not uncommon to see sharp turnarounds both positive and negative, but we were surprised in 2009 when it got so low,” said Chuck Tracy, salmon staff officer for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group that works with the state to monitor fisheries.
The decision this year to open the commercial salmon season was welcome news to the hundreds of fishermen in California who had been forced to either dock their boats or try their luck at another, less profitable fishery.
“It means we can do the thing that punches our ticket,” said David Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Not only will we be able to make a living, we will be doing something that gets us all excited.”
That excitement could be seen on the ocean recently, when even a visit from state game wardens didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of many fishermen. Most welcomed the wardens with pleasant greetings and were happy to show off their catch and talk, again, about fishing salmon.
Wardens patrolled the salmon fleet on a small patrol dinghy launched from the Marlin. The wardens, Thiem and Ian Bearry, inspect the fishermen’s gear and measure the size of their catch — ensuring that “short” salmon, also known as jacks, are not kept on board.
Under regulations meant to ensure the salmon fishery would continue to grow, the Department of Fish and Game has regulated the size of fish that can be kept and how those fish could be caught.
For commercial fishermen, any Chinook salmon larger than 27 inches are fair game, while recreational fisherman can keep Chinook salmon larger than 24 inches. Coho salmon caught off the California coast must be thrown back.
In addition, all fishermen are banned from using barbed hooks.
The owner of the Sachiko of Sacramento saw firsthand how strict the wardens of fish and game are.
The boat’s captain, who refused to speak to a reporter, was cited for having a salmon that was ¼-inch short of the 27-inch limit. The maximum fine for such a violation is six months jail and a $1,000 fine, but Roberts said the maximum penalty is rarely used.
“The size regulation is there for a reason,” Roberts said. “He didn’t plant the salmon; he is just out there taking them. We have to set a limit and if it’s close we can’t let them go. If we did, where would it end?”
Fishermen interviewed Sept. 30 said that while this year’s catch was modest, they saw many smaller salmon that they hope will grow to regulation size by the 2012 fishing season.
“We’ll continue to starve this year but next year we’ll finally make some money,” Ambiel said.
Capt. Wilson Quick of the Sun Ra said he had caught dozens of “short” salmon, also know as jacks, that he was forced to release.
“There’s a lot of jacks and that’s a really good sign,” Quick said with a smile.
While Tracy could not say with certainty that the salmon have returned for good, he thinks the anecdotes he has heard from fisherman about this year’s catch reveal a promising trend.
“Things look reasonably good for the near term at least,” Tracy said. “They should be here for the long-term.”
Bitts, for one, hopes so.
“I would say that most of us are pretty eager for next year to see if the promise this year is fulfilled,” he said. “When we see a lot of short fish like we saw this year, it gives me a lot of hope that we haven’t screwed it up yet.”
By the numbers
$255 million
Amount of economic activity lost when Fish and Game officials suspended salmon fishing in 2009.
Number of jobs lost during that two-year period.
Estimated number of salmon experts expect to be swimming in off the California coast.
Number of fish hauled in by fishermen since the fishing season began in May.

By the numbers
$255 million
Amount of economic activity lost when Fish and Game officials suspended salmon fishing in 2009.
Approximate number of jobs lost during that two-year period.
Number of salmon experts expect to be swimming off state coast.
Number of fish hauled in since the fishing season began in May.

ONLINE: To view a slideshow
of California Department of Fish and Game wardens conducting offshore patrols, go to