.Salmon – Fish

Along the Pacific Coast, natives harvested thousands of adult salmon each fall from their spawning grounds in local rivers and streams.

MEAN SEASONS: Disappearance of California’s wild salmon threatens to disrupt the state ecosystem.

For more than 14,000 years, humans have had a close relationship with wild salmon. Along the Pacific Coast, natives harvested thousands of adult salmon each fall from their spawning grounds in local rivers and streams, a catch that nutritiously fed their families throughout the year.

While many cultures in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are still deeply wedded to the salmon resource, California’s grasp has grown increasingly slippery, with only a small percentage of its historical natural breeding population remaining.

California’s salmon legacy goes far beyond its estimated $1.4 billion fishery: the fish also provide a vital transfer of nutrients and energy from the ocean back to the freshwater ecosystems where they were born.

“People have done studies to show that you can identify ocean-derived nutrients from salmon in many dozens of different species, like kingfishers or water ouzels, fish-eating ducks, foxes, raccoons, coyotes—all the way up to the big predators that used to live here but are gone, like grizzly bears,” says Nate Mantua, a research scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center located in Santa Cruz.

Accumulating 95 percent of their biomass at sea, adult Pacific salmon die after they spawn, and their nutrient-rich carcasses, gametes (mature eggs and sperm) and metabolical waste return to the land.

“It’s fascinating that, over the eons, a lot of fertilizer was provided by these dead salmon, so a lot of the wine grapes and a lot of the agriculture inland by the rivers was fertilized by salmon for a long time,” says Randy Repass of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), a coalition of salmon advocates based in Petaluma.

Salmon’s yearly return props up an entire food web, replenishing bacteria and algae, bugs and small fish, and fueling plant growth with deposits of nitrogen and phosphorus.

“They fertilized forests as well,” says Mantua. “There are lots of studies that find salmon’s ocean-derived nutrients in trees that grow along productive salmon watersheds. And where we’ve depleted the natural runs of salmon, we’ve really degraded that connection.”

Damming a Species

The largest salmon known to man—with adults often exceeding 40 pounds, and capable of growing to 120 pounds—the chinook (aka king) salmon is the pride and joy of California’s salmon fishery. Not so long ago, the Central Valley watershed was one of the biggest producers of naturally breeding chinook salmon in the world, second only to the Columbia River, with the Klamath River another big California contributor. Driven by the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, the Central Valley nursed a ballpark average of a few million salmon per year, emerging each spring out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, says Mantua.

“Today, natural production, maybe in a good year is in the hundred thousand or hundreds of thousands,” Mantua says. “So, yeah, it’s a few percent of the historical population.”

In addition to cold ocean water and an ample food supply at sea, salmon require cold river water that drains all the way to the sea, and, during their early life, a delta habitat. Salmon eggs do not survive in water warmer than 56 degrees, which is why adult fish ready to spawn instinctively head toward the cold, upper headwaters and tributaries coming out of the snow-packed mountains.

Development in the ’40s through ’60s, and especially the constructions of dams like the Shasta Dam, built in 1943 on the Sacramento River, played a key role in the near-annihilation of the long-standing fish stock.”When they built the big dams in California, they basically blocked off access to 80 or 90 percent of the habitat salmon historically used to reproduce in California,” says John McManus, executive director of the GGSA.

Fish ladders, which are like a staircase of pools that salmon can jump through to get over the dam and continue their journey upstream, were built on river dams in Oregon and Washington.

“Well, in California when they built dams, they didn’t put a ladder on a single one of them,” says McManus. The problem with building them now is that most of the dams in California are too massive. “A fish ladder will work with a dam that’s up to about 140 feet high,” says McManus. “The dams that we have in California, a lot of them are in the 200-feet-plus range. Now, everybody is forced basically to get along in the valley floor, in whatever habitat’s left over.

“It’s kind of a wonder they’re still alive. They’re clinging to existence.”

Feast or Famine

When I ring Frank Ribeiro’s boat, Gayle R, in the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, his answering machine squawks out that there is “no new news!” With an email list of more than 1,000 customers for salmon and Dungeness crab, which he’s been fishing locally since ’71, everyone is clamoring to know if crab season will be called back on. I found Ribeiro—whose reputation as both a damn good fisherman and notorious flirt echoes along the docks—on his boat, cooking a pot of beans. Sitting on the deck, he jokes to a passerby that he’s going to bottle and sell the rain water he’s been collecting in plastic bins when water is scarce this summer. “Like when they canned San Francisco fog and made a killing selling it as souvenirs,” he says. “I’ve got to make a living somehow.”

Last year, Ribeiro took the salmon season off. “There were some fish up north, but not much down here. They said it was going to be a bumper year, but it wasn’t,” he says. “We haven’t had any water in the rivers. They claim that there is a lot of fish trying to go up the rivers, but we don’t know what’s going on. We won’t know until we go fishing.”

If you can catch 200-300 pounds of fish you can make a living, he says, and if you can get more than 1,000 pounds you’re pretty much set. “I’ve done OK,” he says, pausing to greet E dock’s resident seagull, P.P. “I’ll always fish, as long as I’m alive.”

Ribeiro, now 70, is one of a generation of old timers who weathered both good and bad years.

“When I first started, the piers were loaded,” says Wilson Quick, who began fishing out of Santa Cruz in 1966 with his dad, and continues to fish for salmon up and down the coast on his boat Sun Ra. “All of that stock was nothing but a solid commercial fleet. I would say there were at least 60 salmon boats in the Santa Cruz harbor in the beginning.”

Today, there are 25 boats with commercial salmon permits, according to Hans Haveman of H&H Fresh Fish Co., who has also been the official fish buyer at the Santa Cruz Harbor for the past three years.

Following a period of abundance in the late ’80s and then again in the late ’90s and early 2000s, California’s salmon season was closed in 2008 and 2009, due to a population crash that scientists at NOAA in Santa Cruz found was due to a lack of upwelling and the subsequent low production of krill, one of salmon’s dietary staples.

“To be honest, I haven’t had a good year since I have taken over,” says Haveman, whose top-selling fish at H&H is salmon. “Even from last year, being a decent year, there was barely enough for my farmers markets. It’s sad because it used to be what everybody put on their barbecue, and in the last couple years it’s turned into a ‘birthday fish,’ as I call it, because people can only buy a little piece of it at $25 per pound.”

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