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California salmon fishing reopens, but trollers still worry

Duncan MacLean of Half Moon Bay is enthusiastic about a new chinook season, but like many fishermen he worries there may not be enough fish to earn a decent living.

June 11, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • After three years, the salmon season is finally open again off California. Duncan MacLean is enthusiastic about being back in the hunt for chinooks, but like other fisherman, he worries there may not be enough fish to guarantee a decent living.
After three years, the salmon season is finally open again off California.… (Don Kelsen, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Half Moon Bay — It's finally time to fish, and Duncan MacLean is ready.

His deckhand, Paul Pelt, is not. When MacLean arrives at his boat in darkened Pillar Point Harbor at 4:30 in the morning, Pelt is snuggled into a tiny bunk below deck with his girlfriend, Donna.

"Let's go, get up," MacLean hollers, and then invites Donna to leave. She rubs her eyes and wanders into the darkness in shorts and a T-shirt.

Like scores of fishermen, MacLean once earned a handsome living trolling for salmon in these waters south of San Francisco. But it's been a struggle since 2008, when authorities sharply restricted fishing to allow the dwindling salmon population to grow.

This spring, the federal government decreed that the fish were back and approved a five-month season. Now old salts like MacLean are eager to get to sea before officials change their minds.

As dawn breaks on a recent morning, he sits at the helm of his 43-foot wooden boat, the Barbara Faye, guiding it past yachts and pleasure cruisers, two break walls and a beacon. But his enthusiasm to be fishing again is tempered by anxiety over what he will catch.

"I don't know if there are that many fish in the ocean," he says, leaning back against the wood paneling of the cabin.

Many fishermen have grown weary of waiting for this moment, and have moved on to grape growing or construction or old age. The California Department of Fish and Game handed out just 706 commercial salmon licenses this year, down by half from 2005. Towns up and down the coast have struggled to fill the gap as gear stores went out of business and sport fishing tourists stayed away.

But MacLean hopes that this will be the year salmon fishing comes back. He dons his shiny orange coveralls and a baseball cap, and steers the Barbara Faye, named after his 23-year-old daughter, over the shiny, pushy ocean.

"There is nothing better than throwing lines out and having fish on every hook," he says. "People pay good money on weekends to do what we do every day."

**

MacLean, 61, looks as if he were born at sea, with the weathered face and hands of a man who has spent his life outside.

It wasn't the life he expected. He majored in art at Sonoma State University, thinking he might become a sculptor. Then a friend asked him to help on his fishing boat one day.

On his first voyage, MacLean fought seasickness and snared his thumbnail with a hook, splitting it down the middle. But he was hooked and decided to try fishing for a living.

His strategy today is to break away from the dozen or so other boats out of Half Moon Bay and head to a spot 10 miles out, where he caught dozens of fish two days earlier.

"There are few places out here I haven't been," he says, chewing on a toothpick.

The 1981 vintage boat's small cabin has a pantry well-stocked with Tabasco sauce, oatmeal, peanuts and other snacks. A skull-and-crossbones flag reading "fish or cut bait" hangs above a double bed, and there's a stove in the corner that keeps the cabin warm.

Cozy but on edge, MacLean looks for telltale signs of fish as the boat's diesel engine hums beneath him. He's seeking areas where the water might be darker, where plankton float on the surface, where birds hover.

His decision to steer clear of the crowd appears to make sense as the voices of the other fishermen from Half Moon Bay crackle over the radio.

"There's nothing for us. Nothing at all," says one.

**

MacLean's quarry, chinook salmon, hatch in freshwater tributaries of the Sacramento River, migrate to the Pacific to feed and mature, and return to the rivers to spawn.

In recent years, their decline has been astonishing: just 40,873 chinooks returned to spawn in 2009, down from 396,005 in 2005, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council, composed of scientists, fishermen, tribal leaders and government officials, counts the number of fish that return to the rivers in order to advise the federal government about the duration of the fishing season.

Back in the 1980s, MacLean says, salmon might weigh up to 30 pounds, and a fisherman could catch as many as 250 a day.

MacLean blames the decline on Central Valley farmers, saying they polluted the delta with pesticides and fertilizers, killing the food sources that salmon depend upon.

"We're sending these fish on a 400-mile journey with nothing to eat, no place to hide, nothing to breathe, and that's a simple fact," he said. "They're not making it to the ocean."

It's more complicated than that, according to Peter Moyle, a fisheries expert at UC Davis. Increasing ocean temperatures and changing currents have disrupted the food chain, Moyle says. Today's salmon are less able to survive these adverse conditions because so many of them are spawned in hatcheries and share similar genetic backgrounds, he adds, leading them to seek out the same areas in the oceans instead of ranging more widely.

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