Soon after the commercial salmon season opened on Aug. 1, Chris Lawson steered his 53-foot boat named Seaward out of the marina at Bodega Bay into ocean waters where he figured chinook salmon would travel. He spent the day trolling, his lines carefully prepared to entice the spirited, iridescent fish.
There were plenty of salmon, but mostly two-year-olds too small for a commercial fisherman to keep.
Lawson shook off nearly 100 short fish from his lines and kept just seven longer than the minimum size — 27 inches. He snagged $9 a pound for 63 pounds, yielding $567 for the day’s work before fuel expenses and pay to one crew member, who gets 20 percent.
Local stores, including Andy’s in Sebastopol and Whole Foods markets, sell fresh salmon for $22 to $30 a pound. Cut into fillets, a 9-pound fish yields roughly half that in final product.
“Seven hours, we had seven fish,” Lawson said. “You make a little bit of money. There were a lot of short fish,” said Lawson, interviewed alongside his boat on Aug. 10. “It looks better for next year. Recreational guys are having an OK season.” Their size limit is smaller.
“We’re just harassing the shorties,” said Lawson, who has fished for 41 of his 56 years. “Let ‘em be.”
Some fishermen “are hurting so they’ll bring them in anyway,” Lawson said. “They need a paycheck.”
The salmon season off Sonoma and Marin coastlines was severely trimmed this year. Usually it starts in May and the best fishing months go through July. But the 2017 season just started in August and runs to the end of September. On Sept. 1, the minimum commercial size drops an inch to 26 inches, according to California’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.
By the end of August, “you get comebackers,” Lawson said, fish that swim back down the coastline aiming to spawn in freshwater. “They don’t feed as aggressively as spring fish,” he said.
The plentiful small king salmon were mostly born in 2015, Lawson said, when hatcheries dumped thousands of 4-inch babies into the Delta, an estuary with more than 1,000 miles of waterways where freshwater from rivers and creeks mixes with ocean water. Rivers including the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Calaveras flow into the Delta, bearing runoff from melting snow.
“They released them by truck into the Delta,” Lawson said. Predators including birds, seals and sea lions watch for officials to dump baby salmon then swoop in to feed. “Predators have a field day” as the fish take a few minutes to adjust to their new surroundings in the wild. “It’s like dinner bell for predators. They catch on quick,” Lawson said.
To boost the survival rate, Fish and Wildlife officials sometimes put young salmon for a few hours into acclimation pens. They also release fish at night when birds don’t feed.
Officials watch commercial fishermen with vigilance. Lawson pointed to a tracking device on a mast. “There’s someone watching me right now,” he said. “It has to be on 24/7. What other line of work do they have a government camera scrutinizing your every move?”
A fisherman with a license for black cod submits to more surveillance, with “observers” and cameras over the plotting polar and sorting table, striped to indicate fish lengths. He calls a number to declare where he plans to fish, and for what species.