After years of having short fishing seasons, or in some years no season at all, salmon fishermen are hopeful for great catches this year.
The commercial salmon season began May 1. Because of the high winds during the first few weeks of the season, most commercial salmon boats in Half Moon Bay have only made a few trips.
The number of fish brought back has varied widely from boat to boat. But word of some big catches has bolstered the hopes of salmon fishermen docked at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.
"It’s much better than last year so far,” said John Burton as he worked on his fishing boat, Aini-K.
Burton has made three salmon fishing trips this season. Each trip yielded a different result. He came back from his latest trip with no salmon, because he had tangled lines. He caught around 20 salmon on his second trip, which was fair, he said. But he caught more than all of last season on his first trip, 87 salmon.
Burton has been fishing south of Half Moon Bay off the coast near Pigeon Point.
"They’ve been catching them all up and down the coast,” he said.
Fishermen are catching salmon as far south as Morro Bay and as far north as Point Arena.
For commercial salmon fishermen, there is no limit on the number of fish they can catch, but the salmon must be at least 27 inches long.
"It’s been spotty so far,” said Tom Genochio who has been fishing for 48 years. "You have good years and bad years.”
Genochio has made five trips this year and caught about 100 salmon.
He agreed with Burton that this season will probably be much better than the previous year. As he worked on his boat Helen Ruth, he said there were some guys who did not catch anything last year.
Jim, captain of the Westerly, said he hopes to catch between 15 and 45 fish per day.
"I’m satisfied, especially with the price,” he said.
Salmon fishermen are selling salmon wholesale for $6.50 per pound. Many fishermen choose to sell directly from their boats, for $10 per pound.
Frank Gee, captain of Ocean Gale, said the high price of salmon is due to the increasingly health-conscious communities surrounding Half Moon Bay. People now know the quality of this fresh-caught salmon and they are willing to pay three times the price for it, he said.
Captain James Smith brings his boat California Dawn with 15 to 30 passengers out for sport fishing from Berkeley. Right now, he is taking the boat about 15 miles out from Half Moon Bay to fish for salmon. He hopes that later in the season he will be able to fish salmon from close by, seven to 20 miles from his Berkeley dock.
Smith does not think of his boat as a salmon boat because up until this year there have not been many salmon for which to fish.
"We caught salmon, but the numbers weren’t great,” he said.
Last year, he mostly fished for halibut, rockfish and bass.
While he does not primarily fish for salmon, Smith hopes the salmon population stays healthy so other fish populations are not overwhelmed. In years when the salmon season was closed, Smith said, the San Francisco Bay was overcrowded with halibut fishermen.
"It effects the guys fishing halibut,” he said. "You have to have a balance.”
Smith attributed the struggling of the salmon population to a lack of water in the rivers where salmon go to spawn.
"We have a big problem with water diversion,” he said.
The pumping of water out of the Sacramento Delta has damaged the salmon habitat, he said.
Jim Hie, conservationist for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, is worried about the long-term future of salmon in California.
"It’s going to be a great year as the water warms up, but it’s not as good as we want it to be,” said Hie.
He pointed to the low water supply in the rivers as a reason for the depleted salmon numbers. Much of the water is pumped out of the rivers and sent down to Southern California, he said. That means there is less water flowing out to carry the smolt — young salmon — to the Pacific Ocean.
"This season will yield the largest return of spawners since 1974, but there’s no water,” said Hie.
The Sacramento Delta and Klamath River will not be viable habitats for salmon to return to unless there are serious changes to the state’s water policies, he said.
The 2012 commercial salmon season off of the California coast, between Point Arena and Point Sur, runs from May 1-June 4, June 27- Aug. 29 and Sept. 1-30.