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Scrapped fishing boats in Fort Bragg (salvagers Bruce Abernathy and his son David) testify to the sharp decline of chinook salmon. (Ryan Anson)

On California's Coast, Farewell to the King Salmon

For the first time there's no fishing for chinook salmon on the California coast. The search is on for why the prize catch is so scarce.

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The salmon-boat cemetery in Fort Bragg, a fishing port tucked into shaggy pines about 150 miles north of San Francisco, is full of bleached and peeling hulls. Over the years many California vessels have landed in Bruce Abernathy's front yard, pitched at steep angles among the weeds, some still rigged with trolling poles. The Anita II, the Dag. Eventually Abernathy's son David takes them apart with a tractor and chain saw and sells what he can for parts. Sometimes all that's left is a scrap with a painted-on name: My Pet.

Bruce Abernathy himself doesn't watch the demolitions. He finds somewhere else to be, or he stays inside his house, with its many framed prints of trim little ships atop frisky seas. The fisherman turned resale man, and lately junk dealer, has "a lot of remorse" about what's happening outside his window beyond the hot pink rhododendron bush. "I know almost everybody who owned these boats," he said. "Boats become part of you, like a wife."

Thirty years ago there were several thousand salmon boats in California. More recently, as the fish became scarce, only a few hundred worked the coast. Then salmon populations crashed, and this year for the first time U.S. officials canceled all ocean salmon fishing off California and most of Oregon, and curtailed it off Washington, a $300 million loss. When I visited Fort Bragg, in late May, the harbor felt about as cheerful as a junkyard. The docks should have quaked with activity, but the mooring basin was quiet except for the hoarse bark of sea lions. The fishermen with the biggest boats hoped to go way out after tuna later in the season; others had already joined roadwork crews or cobbled together odd jobs. Disaster relief money would be on the way, but to many second- and third-generation fishermen, a summer without salmon felt like the end of the line. For the better part of a century the fish supported Fort Bragg, home of the World's Largest Salmon Barbeque, at which local politicians flip fillets on the grill and tourists come from far and wide to taste one of the most sought-after fish in the sea, the chinook salmon, a.k.a. the king.

The sudden decline of California's chinooks, most of which originate in the Sacramento River, has shaken scientists as well as fishermen. Typically several hundred thousand adult fish return from the sea to the river in the fall. Last autumn, only about 90,000 made it back, and fewer than 60,000 are expected this year, which would be the lowest number on record. "Usually when something like that happens, you can point to something dramatic, an oil spill, closing of hatcheries, an earthquake," said Donald McIsaac, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the regulatory group that advised U.S. officials to halt this year's salmon fishing. But no such catastrophe has been definitively linked to the shortage.

Salmon is the third most popular seafood in the United States, after shrimp and canned tuna, with about 600 million pounds consumed annually. Most of the fresh meat is Atlantic salmon raised in fish farms. California fishermen bring in about five million pounds of chinook meat in a good year. That's not terribly much, considering the national appetite, but king salmon is the largest and perhaps the choicest variety, owing to its deep reddish pink color (a result of its krill-heavy diet), high omega-3 fatty acid content and rich flavor. It is the stuff of white tablecloth restaurants and fancy markets, not salmon burgers. ("You would never put king salmon in a can," one fish market analyst told me.)

What's more, local chinook, chrome-colored and strong enough to charge up waterfalls, are revered as a symbol. We savor the salmon's story almost as much as its flesh—its epic slog from birth stream to sea and back again, its significance to Native Americans, who saw the fish as a dietary staple and a religious talisman. Salmon still retain something of that spiritual power. Called the "soul food of the North Pacific," king salmon is the flavor of healthy rivers and thriving coastlines. It is a pepper-crusted or pesto-smeared communion with nature, gustatory proof that in a region where cities are sprawling, wildness still waits below the surface—if you will only cast your fly and find it.

There are about a half-dozen salmon species worldwide, and populations are further defined by their rivers of origin and migration seasons. Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are found from California's Ventura River to Kotzebue Sound in Alaska to Russia's Andyr River and northern Japan. The species whose sudden disappearance has been in the news, prompting Congressional hearings this past spring, is the fall-run Sacramento River chinook, named for the river to which mature fish return to spawn and the season in which they do so. (The Sacramento River also supports much smaller winter and spring runs, which are classified as endangered and threatened, respectively, and a late-fall run.) After eggs are laid in autumn, young salmon emerge from their gravel nests as early as Christmastime, swimming south a few weeks later. They slink seaward mostly at night to avoid predators, lingering in brackish estuaries to gather strength. As they near the ocean, their bodies change. Their renal systems adapt to salt water. They lose black bars on their sides and gradually assume the silvery color—with a scattering of black spots—that thrills fishermen. "God, they're beautiful," exulted Dave Bitts, of McKinleyville, California, a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years. "That's what a fish is supposed to look like—the whole shape of them, the power of the back, the thickness of the tail."

The fish typically stay at sea three years, ranging thousands of miles in the Pacific and gaining 90 percent of their body mass (between 10 to 50 pounds, though the largest weigh more than 100). Then they head for home, tracing the smell of minerals and organic materials to find their natal streams. It is a brutal journey. The fish stop eating once they hit fresh water, and their bodies begin to deteriorate even as they ascend rapids (the word "salmon" comes from the Latin salir, to leap). Ready-to-mate males flush crimson and grow tough-guy hooked jaws for fighting; females search for gravel for a nest. Soon after laying and fertilizing eggs, the exhausted adults die. But the life cycle doesn't stop there. The kings' spawned-out carcasses nourish not only the baby salmon that will take their place but also living things up and down the food chain, stimulating whole ecosystems. Salmon-rich streams support faster-growing trees and attract apex predators like bears and eagles. In certain California vineyards, compounds traceable to salmon can be found in zinfandel grapes.

This is the elegant narrative that people in the West are fighting to preserve, a tale of determination and natural destiny that somehow touches even those of us who don't live there. And yet this ideal of wild salmon is increasingly an illusion.

Coleman National Fish Hatchery, Anderson, California, 4 a.m.: Had it been light, I could have seen the edge of the Cascade Range, which includes Mount Shasta, the Sacramento River's source. But I couldn't make out the hatchery's outbuildings, or anything much beyond a series of long concrete pools, or raceways, illuminated by floodlights.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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