The commercial salmon season opened Thursday between Point Arena and Pigeon Point and while fishermen haul in their first catches of the year this weekend, a unique program that has bolstered the fishery for nearly a decade kicks off in Half Moon Bay.

On Saturday, 240,000 baby Chinook salmon will be trucked down from a state-operated hatchery near Lodi and dumped into a floating net pen off Pillar Point Harbor. The 4-inch-long salmon will be monitored for several days as they acclimate to salt water before they’re released into the open ocean. Additional truckloads will arrive in Half Moon Bay in the coming weeks, sending a total of 740,000 salmon into the wild this year.

“The reason we undertake this program is to get more fish out there for commercial and recreational anglers to catch,” said Marc Gorelnik, chairman of the Coastside Fishing Club and founder of its ocean net pen project. “The natural areas are not faring very well, a little better now with rain, but with years of drought we don’t do very well with natural production.”

The survival rate of salmon reared in this program and the rate at which they’re caught is much higher than any other hatchery-bred salmon, according to a press release. The program eliminates the dangers — including massive water pumps and predators — that baby salmon face on their journey down the Delta.

The volunteer-run program began in 2012 and has since successfully acclimated more than four million salmon.

“The Coastside Fishing Club has a great group of volunteers whose efforts rearing salmon in Half Moon Bay’s harbor have helped to provide salmon fishing for several years,” Coastside Fishing Club volunteer coordinator Bruce MacKimmie said in a press release.

The hundreds of thousands of baby salmon being sent into the wild this year will supplement 2021-2022 returns and many of the salmon that have and will be caught off the San Mateo County coast this year were trucked down from the same hatchery in 2017.

The vast majority of Half Moon Bay-based fishermen were unable to take advantage of the first day of the season Thursday because of bad weather, said fisherman Frank Sousa. But Pillar Point Harbor is packed with boats and eager fishermen, most if not all of whom were to set sail Friday morning in search of salmon, he added.

“Half Moon Bay has been crazy the past four days. Out-of-town boats from Oregon and Washington are side tied to each other because there’s no room for them on the pier,” he said. “I hadn’t seen that many boats in the harbor ever since I’ve been here in the past 10 years.”

Sousa said fishermen are confident the season will be a successful one in part because sport fishermen have seen strong returns around Monterey in the past month or so — south of Pigeon Point has been open to commercial salmon fishing since May 1 — and because many undersized salmon were caught and thrown back last year. Those undersized fish should be big enough to catch this year.

“We’re also hopeful because it seems like the ocean is pretty healthy, there are a lot of anchovies up and down the coast and it seems like salmon will be there because that’s their food source,” he said.

Sousa said most fishermen have been selling salmon wholesale for $8 a pound so far this season, which typically translates to about $25 in stores.

“I imagine prices will stay that way unless we start catching a god awful amount of fish,” he said, adding that most fish caught so far around Monterey averaged between eight pounds and nine pounds while last year most salmon caught were about 13 pounds.

The first “waterfall” of baby salmon being dumped into the ocean as part of the net pen program begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Johnson Pier in Half Moon Bay.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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