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.

Scrapped fishing boats in Fort Bragg (salvagers Bruce Abernathy and his son David) testify to the sharp decline of chinook salmon. (Ryan Anson)
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The plan that has lately gained the backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger involves digging a canal upstream of the delta that would send fresh Sacramento water straight to the pumps. With the help of fish screens, the salmon would stay in the main river and continue their migration without the threat of artificial currents. "Separate the water for people from the water for fish," said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. "Manage each for their own purposes." Quinn says healthy fish populations and a reliable water supply aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, he takes his grandkids every year to see the spawning in Butte Creek, a Sacramento River tributary. "I don't want them growing up in a state where they'll sacrifice fish to get cheap water," he said.

But the peripheral canal, as it's called, is so controversial it's known as the "third rail" of California politics, and voters have nixed it before. Building it would take more than a decade and cost billions, and California will need to figure out how to accommodate another eight million thirsty residents by 2025. Still, academics from different disciplines have begun to agree that the canal may be the only way. "The devil's in the details, though," Moyle said. "No matter what you do, it's going to be complicated—and expensive."

Our nets yielded plenty of fish that morning on the marsh, many of them nonnative: baby carp, yellowfin goby and inland silversides, transparent little fish with a stripe like thermometer mercury. Moyle held flapping palmfuls as he measured them one by one, then tossed them back into the water. He had been right: we saw no young salmon.

To fishermen, the chinook is known as a fighter, and likewise its advocates won't let the fish die out without a struggle. People desperately want to save wild salmon. "DEMAND Wild Californian King Salmon" stickers adorn car bumpers, and products like Butte Creek Brewing's Spring Run Organic Pale Ale benefit the kings. A SalmonAid concert stirred up support in Oakland this past spring, and an advocacy group for Columbia and Snake River salmon hauled a 25-foot fiberglass chinook from Seattle to Washington, D.C., stopping at schools and farmer's markets along the way. Another lawsuit to ensure the wild salmon's safe passage continues to wind its way through the courts.

Even as the crisis deepens, the nation's appetite for salmon grows, thanks largely to the farmed variety. In 1980, almost none of our fresh salmon meat came from fish farms; now three-quarters of it does. Corporations in Norway, Canada and Chile run many of the farms, and most of the fish are Atlantic salmon. Raised in offshore pens, removed entirely from rivers, they eat formulated pellets instead of krill, so their flesh is naturally gray. Aquaculturists feed the fish color additives to make the flesh pink, fine-tuning the hue with the help of a color wheel called the SalmoFan. As a result inexpensive salmon meat is now sold practically everywhere, including Wal-Mart—an abundance that obscures the wild salmon's plight.

Salmon fishing in California and Oregon will probably have to be limited for a few years, to allow stocks to recover. Among those who continue to have faith in the king's return is 26-year-old Cyrus Maahs, a fourth-generation Fort Bragg salmon fisherman. He grew up trolling with his grandfather, Sonny Maahs, who helped found the town's annual salmon cook-off 37 years ago, when the rivers still thrashed with fish and the sea was full of them. Cyrus' father, Mike, put himself through college on salmon money and died at sea in a storm; his name is on the fishermen's memorial in the harbor, beside the charred concrete barbecue pits.

Cyrus believes he has inherited the family instinct to clear the jetty in a thick fog, to pick the perfect psychedelic-colored salmon lure. I asked him if he ever considered a more stable line of work—serving Fort Bragg's burgeoning tourist trade, perhaps, or leading whale-watching trips. "I'd much rather be out there fishing, and have a job with freedom to it," he said. "Once you get a taste of that, it's hard to give up."

The family boat, Kromoli, spent most of the summer at anchor with much of the rest of the town's fleet. Some fishermen contemplated putting their boats up for sale, on the off chance someone would buy them. And yet, even in Fort Bragg, the myth of a bountiful fishery persists. Visitors to this July's World's Largest Salmon Barbeque did not go hungry, for instance. They were served coho salmon flown in from Alaska.

Abigail Tucker is the magazine's staff writer.
Freelance photographer Ryan Anson is based in San Francisco.


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