SAN FRANCISCO Charlie Clark sells custom-cured, mouth-watering smoked salmon and trout every Friday at the Farmer's Market in Mill Valley, Calif.
Despite the fact that his stand is located five miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, where as recently as 2002 more than 800,000 large king salmon passed through every fall en route to their spawning grounds in the Sacramento Valley, the wild salmon that Clark uses today have to be flown in from Alaska.
This is because for the last two years there have not been enough salmon off the coast in California or most of Oregon to allow for a commercial or recreational fishery, except for brief recreational fishing periods in a couple rivers.
Over in San Francisco, Paul Johnson, President and Founder of the Monterey Fish Market, has been a wholesale and retail seafood supplier for 30 years. Johnson supplies fresh seafood to restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf.
Four years ago, when he could get fresh king salmon right offshore, the price of fillets to the restaurants was around $8 a pound. Today, the chefs at Fishermen's Wharf are buying Paul's fresh wild king salmon fillets for $25 a pound.
"I'm not making any money on them, because they have to be flown in from Alaska," Johnson said.
There has not been a general ocean commercial or recreational salmon fishing season in California and in most of Oregon for the last two years, due to dramatically diminished populations. Not that many years ago, the fall run of Chinook or king salmon in Sacramento River was the largest on the Pacific Coast, often numbering over a million fish a year.
There were not enough salmon in the fall run in 2007 for a fishing season. Same for 2008. Last year, less than 40,000 king salmon passed through the Golden Gate toward their spawning grounds.
An economic study commissioned by Southwick Associates finds that the collapse of the king salmon population and two years of no salmon fishing in California have collectively cost California and Oregon at least 23,000 jobs and more than $2 billion in lost revenue. Recent economic estimates find that a full-recovery of the Sacramento fall-run of king salmon would result in about $6 billion in revenue and create 94,000 new jobs.
Despite the fact that the first ocean king salmon season in California in three years opened April 3 and runs for a month, the fishing community is understandably up in arms. More than one person is worrying that the projections of a fall run this year of over 100,000 fish may not happen.
It was little wonder then that on April 1, more than 600 people swarmed together like a school of hungry salmon for a "Salmon Summit" meeting that was held in San Francisco at Fort Mason.
The sign-toting crowd that was greeted by a 22-foot blowup salmon and a lady dressed as a salmon was more than twice the capacity of the room. There was a standing- room-only audience to hear opening remarks from Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, who kicked off the meeting by introducing Congressmen George Miller (D-Martinez) and Mike Thompson (D-Napa), Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin County), and a representative for Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-San Rafael-Santa Rosa).
There are many explanations for the dramatic decline in the Sacramento king salmon run poor ocean conditions, global warming, El Nino, Humboldt squid predation on salmon, droughts, etc. but everyone at the Salmon Summit seemed to agree on two things: fishing is not a reason for the decline and huge water diversions from the Sacramento River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta had dramatically reduced habitat for spawning and development of young salmon.
Record lows of salmon coincide with all-time high levels of water diversions from the Sacramento Bay-Delta, and the pumping kills huge numbers of juvenile salmon as they migrate down the Sac to the ocean were the mantras of the crowd as they waited for the summit to begin.
Miller got a standing ovation when he declared that he and Thompson were working on having the Administration declare the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area as a "Waterway of National Significance," on a par with Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and The Great Lakes.
Thompson called for a coalition of science and public participation to curb the diversions, many of which were sending water to agri-businesses to grow water thirsty crops. He also reported that he truly understood the severity of the economic impact of the problem as in his Congressional District, there has been a 93 percent drop in fishing in the last three years due to salmon closures.
Huffman, who chairs the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee of the California Assembly, decried "reckless water management" in the Bay-Delta system, and said that we need to "return salmon to be senior water rights holders," over and above the interests of agriculture. He also said that he had recently introduced Assembly Bill 2063 to declare the Chinook salmon as the state anadromous fish. With proper management, he said he felt that it would take a decade to restore the Sacramento fall-run salmon to return to being a truly sustainable species.
Tom Moss read a statement from Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey that addressed mismanagement of the Bay-Delta system due to agri-business in the Central Valley as the prime reason behind the salmon collapse and that the long-term goal should be the re-establishment of salmon runs in the Sacramento River system that are sustainable, climate-sensitive, and not impeded by agricultural water diversions.
After the politicians had made brief statements, they sat back and listened to 11 prepared statements and an equal number of eloquent comments from the floor. One of the most captivating of these statements came from party boat captain Jacky Douglas of the "Wacky Jacky," who spoke about how salmon had put her four daughters through school.
"The fifth child in our family," she said, "is the boat."
Douglas suggested a saying to rally people around "Love thy salmon as thy love thyself you should care for salmon like you care for your home."
The speakers represented the entire salmon fishing community commercial fishermen, harbormasters, recreational fishermen, tackle and bait shops, fish processors and wholesalers, politicians, and a 9-year-old boy who asked the politicians to insure that the salmon did not go extinct.
The stories they told brought tears to some eyes: 74 harbors along the coast serve salmon fishing, and 90 percent of the boats moored there are for fishing, especially for salmon, and so the recent closures had left many berths open.
Laura Anderson, owner of the Local Seafood Company in Oregon, said she used to sell a $1 million worth of salmon a year, and recently had only sold a few thousand dollars a year.
Darrell Ticehurst, Chairman of the Coastside Fishing Club, noted that after the dams were removed from the Klamath River, the salmon had come back, making it possible for the Klamath to stay open for recreational fishing and tribal commercial fishing the last two years.
"This," he said, "is proof that if you have got water and habitat, the salmon will come back."
Jonah Li, owner of Hi's Tackle Box bait and gear shop in San Francisco, spoke and said there were 904 tackle retailers in California and 500,000 fishermen who pursue salmon, but with the salmon closures the last two years stores have been closed and people laid off as sales have plunged dramatically.
Randy Repass, Chairman and Founder of West Marine Products, the biggest supplier of marine equipment for boats in the U.S., with 16 stores in North California, talked about the decline in their business and that 34 boat dealers in California have gone out of business in the last two years.
Paul Johnson from the Monterey Fish Market talked about how as he does his business, he sees "ghosts" of people who have been laid off and businesses that have closed at Fisherman's Wharf.
Jimmy Smith, former fisherman and now Humboldt County Supervisor, decried 1,001 unscreened water diversions, and water from major rivers in his district that are pumped over the mountains to fill demands in the Central Valley.
One especially troubling condition that came out these statements was that as if the agricultural diversions have not been bad enough, apparently some of the diversions for "agriculture" have actually been resold to developers so that new homes and shopping centers can be built.
Not a soul left the room for two hours until Dick Pool, Pro-Troll tackle manufacturer and president of Water4Fish, made the final statement.
"We need to stop the political maneuvering and get on with the requirements of the Biological Opinion before runs decline ever further and the recovery problems are compounded," he said. "The state and federal biologists spent six years using the latest technology to find where and how juvenile salmon perish in the rivers and the Bay-Delta. Their data represents the 'Best Available Science,' on actions that must be taken to stop the bleeding and recover these fish."
As the meeting adjourned, participants were served a complimentary lunch prepared by local restaurants and organizations pickled Monterey calamari on taco chips, cured sardines with avocado chutney, Dungeness crab cakes, smoked trout, grilled fish tacos and barbecued rock cod. A truly sumptuous repast, except that noticeably missing from the menu was what should have been the main course Sacramento River king salmon.
Maybe there is fresh local salmon on the table this week, if the biologists are right that there are enough out there just waiting to hop in the boat.
One note. The Salmon Summit was produced by a coalition of fishing groups and three environmental groups Earth Justice, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was nice to see some bridges being built between conservationists and environmentalists, who all too often seem to be on opposite sides of the fence.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.