A King's Rule over The Pink Harbor

Sept. 26, 2018

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In California, the return of King salmon is a cause for celebration. As juveniles, they leave the rivers for the ocean, returning four to five years later to the rivers where they were born. On their journey, these schooling fish support a myriad of wildlife, from the orcas that eat the mature Kings, to the ospreys that feed along the rivers and drop their carcasses, helping fertilize the vegetation below. Wild salmon support ecosystems in the ocean and on land, including fishing communities. The Santa Cruz port was once known as the “Pink Harbor” due to the importance of Chinook and King salmon to both commercial and sport fishermen. Mike Hubbell, president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fisherman’s Association, has fished commercially for 43 years. “Back in the 90’s, we were catching 1,000 pounds of King salmon a day,” he said. “Now they’re lucky to catch 20 pounds. Though, since they’re so scarce, the price is much higher these days.” 

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THE FISH HUB IN ACTION

Despite an incredibly short King salmon season this year, local fishermen from Santa Cruz still eagerly geared up and headed out to (hopefully) bring back boatloads of this high value fish. When the first catch started rolling in, buyers were paying $18/lb, but day after day as more and more fish were being landed, the supply outpaced demand and prices bottomed out at $6.00/lb – a fishermen can hardly make a living off of that.

Hans Haveman, a first receiver who buys salmon from Santa Cruz’s fleet of small scale fishermen, had accumulated close to 7,000 lbs of inventory to sell. Catching wind of the glut, MBFT’s Roger Burleigh reached out to him and was able to broker a deal with a new high-end grocery store chain, Wild Roots Market, which bought over 100 lbs of whole fish at $10/lb over the weekend. Although this may be a drop in the proverbial ocean, anytime the full value of a local catch is realized we consider that a win. Hans gained a potential new customer and Wild Roots’ sold truly local Monterey Bay caught salmon that they marketed as such to their customers.

Learn more about our Fish Hub program here.

These incredible fish, weighing in at around 9 to 15 pounds, are bullet shaped with bright, shiny, chrome scales. They are a sport fisherman’s dream catch, and used to be a solid payday for commercial fishermen. However, California salmon have been in crisis due to droughts and water wars waged over their river habitat. According to Hubbell, the crisis is political more than anything.  

In 2008-2009 King salmon fishing was closed in the state of California due to poor returns of fall King salmon. The blow to California’s economy was estimated at $549 million. The salmon came back, but low river flows and warmer temperatures in 2014-2015 impacted outgoing juvenile salmon, which are returning now. Due to the low forecasted returns, regulators reduced the season this year to just three weeks to relieve pressure and maintain the health of these fish stocks. Meanwhile, the water wars rage as farmers protest the California Water Board’s plan to release more water into the San Joaquin River and three of its tributaries - an effort aimed at protecting the state’s declining salmon population. 

Fortunately, there are groups working in the Monterey region to help salmon populations recover. The Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project is a non-profit focused on restoring anadromous fish that live in both fresh and salt water, like steelhead trout and King and Coho Salmon. In 2001, they started a net pen program and released juvenile King salmon from a hatchery in the Santa Cruz harbor. Unfortunately, sea lions and some two-legged salmon predators got a little too excited about salmon returning to the harbor, so the program took a hiatus. 

However, it’s coming back soon, but this time with a plan to take the juvenile salmon out to the bay for release, so they imprint on the Monterey Bay instead. According to board member Jeremy Streig, who runs Harbor Pride Seafood, a local distributor and wholesaler based in Santa Cruz, “boats will take them out to sea, and they’ll be acclimatized in fish holds that have been filled with sea water,” he said. “Then they’ll be slowly released. It’s a win-win for the fish; they won’t imprint in the harbor, and if they stray, it will most likely be to a river.” 

Another group working to preserve King salmon is the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a coalition that includes commercial and sport fishermen. They recently held a fundraiser at the Santa Cruz Elks Lodge on September 21st, which the Santa Cruz Commercial Fisherman’s Association (GGSA) helped support, and which is still accepting donations . According to Mike Hubbell, “commercial and sport fisherman used to be at odds with each other,” he said. “But now we have to get everyone on the same page to protect salmon, politically and environmentally. That’s the big reason to support the GGSA. They need more funding to get bigger and stronger.” Although salmon resemble a silver bullet, there is no silver bullet solution that will see them return to reign the Bay - it will take a community working together.

The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust is working to raise awareness about local fisheries, the fishing community, and local efforts to protect and conserve our fishery resources.

Sherry Flumerfelt