Jake Bunch and his brother Devin Bunch wrap fishing line and lures in preparation of heading out at the start of salmon season at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay Wednesday.
As commercial fishermen threw out their lines at the stroke of midnight with hopes of reeling in the first of this year’s salmon Thursday, unfavorable drought conditions and Pillar Point Harbor politics have some worried about the years ahead.
Jake Bunch, a marine biologist, commercial fisherman and captain of the Sadie K, is fairly new in the fishing industry. Bunch said he decided to take to the seas in 2012 and now brings home fresh salmon and crab to sell off his boat at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.
“The local movement now is huge, so people are willing to pay for stuff that’s harvested locally which is great for us,” Bunch said. “What I try to do is sell everything I can off the boat. … I did about half of my total revenue of off-the-boat sales last year.”
Commercial season began Thursday and runs through Aug. 29 with a two-week break in the beginning of July. Yet statewide drought conditions, conservation efforts, local fish buying fees and tension over a new hoist at Johnson Pier have some fishermen worried.
Recreational fishermen have already caught bright red beauties, fat on healthy krill, said Dave Mallory, fish buyer and owner of Morning Star Fisheries.
“There’s always hope and expectation in the beginning of salmon season,” Mallory said. “And now people are ready for their omega 3 wild salmon. Of course most of them don’t know it, but they’ve been used to eating farm fish over the winter. … Salmon has gone up quite a bit in price over the last 10 years or so, so it’s become kind of a niche market.”
Fishermen earn more when they sell off their boat and Bunch said last year rates were $8 to $10 per pound for a whole fish while wholesalers offered as low as $5.25.
Prices fluctuate throughout the season and this year’s won’t be determined until salmon are unloaded and the market heats up.
Effects of the drought
Jim Anderson, commercial fisherman and captain of the Allaine, is involved in salmon conservation and advocating for the local fishing community in Half Moon Bay.
The amount of catchable fish, harbor rates, fish buying fees and the potential release of old frozen salmon could contribute to what a fisherman can expect to earn, Anderson said.
To promote healthy salmon populations and combat drought conditions, government and local agencies are releasing juvenile salmon from hatcheries down river or into the ocean. A program in Half Moon Bay began three years ago to help sustain the local industry. Last year, about 420,000 juvenile salmon were released into nets off the dock and this year another 360,000, Anderson said.
Because salmon take about three years to fully grow, they expect to gather data from the released salmon with coated wire tags, Anderson said.
“We’re hoping to see what the survival rate is, what the catchability is on the fish and how many go back to the hatchery and how many stray and all those issues that are really concerns of the fisheries. We’ll be able to track all these things,” Anderson said. “It’s been amazing to see [people] get together and deal with the drought. It’s really neat that the different agencies have come up with contingency plans.”
The drought has affected river flow rates and water temperatures making conservation efforts more critical then ever, Anderson said.
Anderson said he and Mike McHenry, owner of the unloading station Pillar Point Fisheries, have been able to disperse another 400,000 from McHenry’s boat under the Golden Gate.
McHenry said he owns a private hoist on Johnson Pier and makes his living through offloading fees.
Fish buying fees
About two years ago, the San Mateo County Harbor District raised Pillar Point Harbor’s fish buying fees to some of the highest in the state.
Now, Pillar Point Fisheries, Morning Star Fisheries and Three Captains Sea Products all pay an extra $400 a month in base rent and for the first time became subject to offloading fees.
McHenry said depending on what he’s unloading, he’s having to pay a third of his profit to the harbor. Anderson and McHenry say the inflated costs trickle down to the fishermen and are driving some away.
“My thoughts are [the district is] in the harbor business, the berth business, the lease business, etc. Don’t try and get a piece of the fisherman’s action. They’re the guys taking the risk, they’re the ones that don’t come home at night,” McHenry said.
Anderson and McHenry said the San Francisco and Moss Beach harbors don’t charge any offloading fees. They fear local fisherman will go elsewhere and Pillar Point Harbor will find it’s pushing out those who have supported it for decades.
“When they raised the slip fees and the overnight fees they pretty much drove the salmon fleet away,” Anderson said.
When the fish buying leases were redrafted in 2012, a provision allowing the three renters to have a second hoist was included and last month the Three Captains installed another in the center of the pier. Some have speculated the private new hoist in a prime location was a perk, will be inconvenient for others and gives Three Captains an unfair advantage.
Anderson and Bunch said they would first focus on off-the-boat sales because that’s where they’ll see the most profit.
Bunch said depending on the harvest, what he can’t sell off the boat he’ll sell to a boutique buyer who works out of San Francisco and sells to high-end restaurants eager for fresh, local product.
The fishermen encourage the public to pack a cooler full of ice, spend an enjoyable day on the coast and take home fresh salmon that supports the county’s busiest harbor.
“One of the long term goals of this off-the-boat sales, and this is one of the only harbors that does it, is to get more and more people coming [to Pillar Point] … to buy fish because they know they’re getting a premium product,” Bunch said.
For updates on which boats are selling at any given time, download the free FishLine App available on iTunes or call the Pillar Point Harbor Master at (650) 726-4382.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106