Instead of preparing to hit the Pacific’s wind-tossed waters next month, veteran fisherman Dave Bitts sat at the counter of a dockside restaurant on Humboldt Bay recently, mulling fate and a cloudy future.
For the first time since the birth of the West Coast fishing industry 150 years ago, Bitts and other fishermen face a season without salmon.
Federal regulators, worried about sagging runs up and down the coast, agreed Thursday to cancel this year’s commercial and recreational catch of chinook -- the prized king salmon of the fish market -- off California and Oregon.
The ban adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council after a weeklong meeting in Seattle marks the new low point for a trade enshrined in the West since the Gold Rush.
An aborted season will wallop coastal communities in which salmon has long been a financial and cultural mainstay. Repercussions are expected to ripple out, with the ban hurting not just fuel docks and tackle stores but also supermarkets and truck dealerships.
In California, commercial salmon fishing is a $150-million business.
Hardest hit will be full-time fishermen like Bitts, a gray-bearded Stanford graduate who three decades ago chucked plans to follow his family into teaching. He preferred the sea.
Like most North Coast fishermen, a hearty but shrinking brotherhood scattered in harbor towns like Fort Bragg, Bodega Bay and Santa Cruz, Bitts depends on the salmon catch for more than half his income.
After the last two dismal salmon seasons, he and other commercial fishermen knew 2008 would be bad.
The Sacramento River has in recent years been the West Coast’s spawning powerhouse. While other rivers suffered, it became the backbone of the industry, with a productive run that reliably dispatched enough fish into the Pacific to keep the commercial fleet afloat and sport fishermen happy.
But lately the number of chinook returning to the river has been dropping. Scientists now predict that fewer than half the fish needed to ensure a sustainable population will return this fall.
Given these bleak realities, Bitts and many other fishermen are greeting the ban as a grim necessity for a livelihood that depends on the fickle nexus of Mother Nature and mankind.
“Going fishing this year would be like a farmer eating his seed corn,” Bitts said. “For a sliver of a season and a tiny catch, it’s not worth it.”
Federal regulators approved a truncated salmon season for Washington and allowed a 9,000-fish catch of hatchery-raised coho salmon off central Oregon.
A normal season in the West is long and prosperous, running from May to October, with more than 800,000 fish caught off California and Oregon.
This year the season ended before it started.
“Fishermen are born with an extra helping of hope,” Bitts said. “But I never had much hope for this season.”
Now he and other fishermen are pushing hard for financial help and for the government to find a way to fix what ails the salmon.
Last week, Bitts and half a dozen peers flew to Washington to lobby for disaster relief. They warned that the economic hit they will take this year will eclipse that of 2006, when a sharply curtailed season required more than $60 million in federal aid to keep the commercial fleet from sinking in red ink.
The fishermen also are aggressively promoting potential solutions -- such as better practices at hatcheries that raise juvenile salmon and environmental fixes for the ecologically challenged Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Federal scientists have laid much of the blame for the salmon slump on shifting ocean conditions and a flagging offshore food chain, possibly brought on by global warming.
But fishermen contend that there are other culprits. “We’ve come to the conclusion there are a whole bunch of smoking guns,” said Duncan MacLean, a Half Moon Bay angler representing fishermen at this week’s meeting.
Factors as unexpected as bridge construction -- in particular the underwater noise caused by pile-driving tower supports -- may have impeded tiny juveniles venturing to sea, MacLean said.
The fishermen also see trouble in long-enshrined hatchery practices.
A federal hatchery in the state’s far north releases baby salmon right into the upper reaches of the Sacramento River for a perilous 250-mile journey out to sea. Studies have found that in some years just 2% survived the trip, said MacLean, who believes the fish should travel by truck.
State hatcheries do haul juveniles by truck, dumping them beyond the delta near the entry to San Francisco Bay. The fish have traditionally been placed first in floating “net pens” to ease their adjustment to a predatory world. By 2005, however, the pens had fallen into such disrepair that state crews stopped bothering to use them. When the juvenile salmon were dumped into the bay, “it was like having a neon dinner sign up,” Bitts said. Little fish quickly fell prey to sea gulls and striped bass, he said. Chastened, the state resumed use of the pens last year.
But the 800-pound gorilla remains the troubled delta.
The state’s biggest estuary saw a marked decline in several fish species as water exports ballooned, peaking in 2005 at more than 6 million acre-feet. The pumps are so strong they can suck up fish, including migrating juvenile salmon.
Salmon may be benefiting this year from a federally ordered pumping cutback intended to protect the tiny delta smelt. Bitts and other fishermen want permanent cutbacks in the water exported to Southern California cities and San Joaquin Valley farmers.
They are pushing for the state to meet future water needs with conservation, recycling, increased groundwater storage and bolder efforts at desalinization. They would like to see Central Valley farmers shift away from water-intensive crops, and they want regulators to crack down on pesticides that taint delta water.
Salmon are survivors, Bitts said. They can rebound. But they need help.
“It’s painful to watch what’s happening,” he said. “To the fish and the fisherman.”