Could California's Salmon Make a Comeback?
Jon Rosenfield and I bushwhack through the scrubby willows that line the American River east of Sacramento. The air is crisp this October morning, and the timing of our visit should be just right to watch California’s Chinook salmon as they return to where their lives began and spawn the next generation. Rosenfield, a biologist, works for a conservation group called the Bay Institute, and he wants me to witness an annual ritual that future generations might not have the opportunity to see.
For the salmon, it’s the end of a hard journey that typically lasts three years. After hatching in the river’s gravelly bottom, the young often hang out in its shallow backwaters, developing the bulk and camouflage they need for survival. They then travel downstream toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta -- the tidal estuary where they start their transition from fresh to salt water -- and out through San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. There the fish spend most of their lives, feasting on krill, crab larvae, herring, sardines, and anchovies. This is in preparation for the most arduous part of their life cycle: the swim upstream to close the loop. By the time the salmon reach the spot where Rosenfield and I are standing, their energy has been channeled entirely from survival toward reproduction. They’ve stopped eating. Their skin is falling off. After depositing eggs or fertilizing them, they will die. Their carcasses -- "these millions of 20-, 30-, 40-pound bags of fertilizer," says Rosenfield -- will be eaten by coyotes, bears, and eagles, which in turn will spread their droppings across forest floors and agricultural fields. "In watersheds where wine grapes are grown and salmon still spawn," he says, "you can detect the ocean-nutrient signature in the wine."
We reach the bank and step onto some rocks. For a moment, I see nothing but the river’s flow. Then a fin pops out, followed by a splash. "You see that red?" Rosenfield asks, pointing to a flash of color. "That’s a sexual signal." I notice one fish circling another in what the biologist identifies as courtship activity. My eyes adjust, and I realize the water is pocked with these displays of fertility.
We wouldn’t have seen this a few years ago, Rosenfield tells me. "We might have seen a salmon or two." Historically, up to two million Chinook returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems each year to spawn, and in 2002 the Pacific Fishery Management Council recorded 770,000 in its fall count. That number plummeted to 91,000 in 2007, such a dramatic crash that the council shut down the next two commercial-fishing seasons and much of the third. After 2009, when the spawning run bottomed out at 41,000, the population started climbing, reaching an estimated 284,000 last fall, a modestly encouraging number if not the record-breaking bounty many had hoped for. The reasons for the collapse are numerous and interconnected: the damming of California’s rivers; poor ocean conditions; the reliance on hatcheries, with their genetically inferior fish, to make up for lost habitat; and the increasing extraction of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by two giant pumping stations built to slake the Golden State’s thirst.
Salmon’s decline harmed more than the birds, bears, and trees that rely on them. It also wreaked havoc on a vast human ecosystem of commercial and recreational fishers, along with businesses like marinas, restaurants, and tackle manufacturers. It roused to action small farmers inside the delta, who share the salmon’s need for water. Californians from those sectors, along with environmentalists, have banded together to warn that misguided policy decisions could permanently close an iconic fishery, devastate an economy, and destroy a traditional way of life.
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Before sunrise on San Francisco’s Embarcadero -- before the buskers haul out their portable amplifiers, before the tourists start carrying around bread bowls sloshing with clam chowder -- the local salmon business is already cranking up along the muddy back wharves. Industrial ice machines whir. Forklifts emit their back-up warning beeps. Sea lions hover near fishing boats while gulls circle overhead. Down the cavernous hallway of Pier 33 and past a makeshift wall topped with coils of razor wire, the phone rings insistently inside a business called the Monterey Fish Market.
Slips of paper cover a dispatcher’s table as the calls come in from white-linen restaurants, tech-firm cafés, and specialty grocers. Boxes of seafood, some trucked from less than a mile away, pass through a plastic curtain into the wholesale facility, where workers in orange and yellow rubber aprons unpack, scale, gut, carve, wash, weigh, and repack. Since 3:00 a.m. they’ve been crisscrossing one another on the concrete floor, pushing hand trolleys and loading the metal shelves with wild-caught fish. The air is cold, like the inside of a refrigerator, and filled with numbers. "Nineteen point six!" "Veinticinco nueve!" "You said you needed 25? I’ve got 18 so far."
Paul Johnson looks up from his computer to survey the hubbub. The market’s founder is 64, with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair and a voice as gravelly as a river bottom, betraying his Rhode Island roots. His arms slice the air when he talks about salmon, which he does often as one of the most outspoken voices in the effort to save the California Chinook.
In the late 1970s, Johnson was tooling around the country when his motorcycle broke down in Berkeley. He camped out in a field and woke to the sounds of restaurant employees reporting for work. Right next to the field was Inn Season, a classic French and Italian restaurant opened by a local physicist. "How about a job?" someone asked. Hired as a cook, Johnson fell into the city’s "gourmet ghetto" scene, where he befriended Alice Waters, owner of the pioneering eatery Chez Panisse. The two easterners would commiserate about the sorry quality of seafood sold to Bay Area restaurants by shoddy suppliers. (Before one special dinner, a wholesaler delivered a soggy box of freezer-ruined salmon labeled in Cyrillic letters rather than the promised local Chinook.) "So I took my suicide-door Lincoln Continental and drove over to San Francisco to see what I could find," Johnson says.
Walking along Fisherman’s Wharf, breathing in the briny air, he discovered beautiful fresh salmon and other species coming off the Italian dories that dominated the local fleet. He began buying and selling seafood, then quit his cooking job to become a full-time wholesaler. He’s run the market for more than 30 years, specializing in sustainable harvests from small-boat American fishermen. The products he sells are seasonal, with none so special as California Chinook, which brings in 40 percent of his revenue during the fall-run season. "When salmon hits," he says, "it’s like when the Giants go to the playoffs."
A few blocks north, at 4:30 a.m., Jacky Douglas is brewing coffee and readying paperwork on her charter boat, the Wacky Jacky, in preparation for the arrival of the day’s sport-fishing customers. Eighty-four years old, with blue eyes and shoulder-length silver-blond hair, she possesses every bit of the radiance that in the 1940s earned her the title of Queen of the San Francisco 49ers. During halftime, Douglas would ride around Kezar Stadium in a convertible. ("The stands whistled shrill approval," reported the San Francisco Chronicle.) Today her preferred conveyance is the 50-foot Delta that she bought in 1976 to take people salmon fishing. By then she had spent decades paying close attention to the "kings of the fleet" as they taught her how to cut bait, read the tides, and count the minutes between buoys.
A female captain was often unwelcome during those early years. Douglas was picked on in boating classes, hazed on the water, dismissed by loan officers. "They couldn’t understand why this woman wants to be a party-boat skipper," she says. To buy the Wacky Jacky, she and her husband "hocked everything but the kids." She worked hard to prove herself until grudging acceptance turned to affection.
Today Douglas is considered both the matriarch of the San Francisco salmon community and its most sympathetic spokesperson. Her customers show up at 5:30 for a day of fishing that can stretch into the late afternoon. She still gets a thrill when someone lands his first catch, especially if it’s a child. "Everybody cheers and hollers," she says. "We yell. We high-five it out there. Strangers become friends."
At home Douglas sleeps under a mounted 52-pound salmon. She showers in a bathroom tiled in a salmon motif. When she’s not piloting her boat, she attends every public forum she can to speak out for protection of the species. "If it wasn’t for salmon, I wouldn’t be able to go on," she says. She’s referring to her career, but she’s also talking about how captaining the Wacky Jacky helped her blossom after a miserable childhood. "I always kept a barrier around myself," Douglas says. "I just wonder what made me get strength enough to keep going. I think it was my family, my girls -- and the salmon."
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California’s salmon business exists, for many, at the intersection of the commercial and the sacred. Larry Collins, a burly 55-year-old with a walrus mustache, divides his time between his own commercial fishing boat and the warehouse on Pier 45, overlooking Alcatraz, where he runs a co-op for 14 small-boat captains. During the months he and his wife, Barbara, harvest salmon, they stay out for four nights at a time. They follow the fish by day, catching them with barbless hooks, then anchor at night and turn off their 400-horsepower engine. "You shut off all the electronics, your radar and fish-finder, maybe except one radio, and you shut the main down," Collins says. "And it’s quiet. And there you are. There’s the beach. There’s the birds. There’s the whales coming up right by the boat. You can hear the Duxbury buoy, the bell on it dinging."