California Small Boat Fishery
By Peter Johnsen
Originally published in Izilwane
As I worked on salmon recovery projects in California, I learned a great deal about the conflicts surrounding the diminishing salmon populations. Though many issues have centered on the question of water use, the survival of salmon in California is not only an economic question, but also a question of how we value social and cultural diversity in our society.
Northern California once had large salmon runs that provided a thriving coastal trawl fishery. Many of the towns along the coast from Monterey Bay north to Crescent City were – and to some extent still are – based on small-boat ocean salmon fishing. Because of diminished returns, the fishery along the coast was closed in 2008; when I visited the state in 2010, only small-scale, scientific fishing was allowed. Since, improved runs, a positive prognosis for future production and better management have opened up the salmon fishery again – for now.
During my trip to California, I interviewed several fishermen and women about their lives, what salmon meant to them, and how they saw their future and the future of their communities. One of the fishing boats I visited was run by Larry Collins and his wife, who operate out of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They had fished together for more than 25 years and were on their third boat. As Collins told me, the salmon fishing was their bread and butter, making up 70 percent of their income.
These men and women live lives of both community and solitude. When out fishing, social interaction is limited to the crew and to communication between ships. But salmon fishing is also a tightly knit community of people and families that know each other well. When the fishing season arrives, they rig up their boats and set out on a journey along the coast, a journey that can last for weeks or months. As another fisherman on the wharf, John, told me, salmon fishing is one of those careers in which each person works as part of a community. Fishermen depend on each other to know locations of salmon, to exchange information and to maintain boats. When the boats gather together to seek harbor to sell their catch, docking on the Monterrey Bay or other nearby harbors before setting out again, fishermen meet other at the docks, have dinner and a few beers, share stories, exchange information. If help was needed – for instance, a boat repair – a helping hand was always available.
They don’t have much hope, however, for the future of this way of living. With diminishing stocks and the temporary closure of the fishery in 2008, fewer young people have been recruited to the commercial, small-boat fishing industry; the lifestyle and economic incentives just aren’t enough to entice new interest.
Changes to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river deltas have played a crucial role in declining salmon populations and the ensuing conflicts. Operations of the Federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project divert river water to irrigate a multi-million-dollar agriculture industry in the arid San Joaquin Valley and to quench the thirst of 22 million people in sprawling Los Angeles. The pumps are so forceful that their operation reverses the flow of water, causing the river to flow upstream. Consequently, large numbers of juvenile salmon are lost as they get sucked up by the pumps during their migration to the sea.
These water projects have taken the brunt of the blame for the loss of the California salmon. As a consequence, the fishing community, together with environmental organizations, has taken the fight to those that operate these facilities – the federal and state governments and the many water contractors that control water distribution. The conflict has stirred animosity between coastal and inland communities and costs the public millions as the government remains stuck in perpetual litigation.
Consideration for cultural and social linkages to natural resources such as salmon go beyond contemporary economic concerns, though such concerns should be taken into account when evaluating consequences and costs of economic and social development. Breaking these linkages creates social insecurity, instability and conflict. If this applies to modern cultures in California, it could not be more relevant than in other societies that have even closer ties to their resources.
Peter Berulf Johnsen has worked on recovering endangered and threatened fish in the Pacific Northwest United States for more than eight years. With a master’s degree and expertise in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology, he has a strong understanding about the importance of biological diversity. He also has a background in social and economic development and has recently begun exploring the important connection between human and environmental relationships. In 2010, Peter started The Great Salmon Tour, which illustrates the connection between salmonids and people. He has visited communities in Alaska, California, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Mongolia to document salmon diversity and interview people about their ties to these species.
Photos are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All photos are courtesy of Peter Johnsen.