Edible Monterey Bay

On the Water: Wild salmon, steelhead and the drought

Canaries in our modern coastal coal mine?

Jeremy Notch with a full-grown specimen. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Notch

Jim Moser lived on a little sailboat in the Santa Cruz Harbor when he was 23. He worked at the marine radio shop and started meeting local fishermen. “I saw the independence the fishermen had and I liked it,” he says. “I was never much for an 8 to 5 job, so fishing seemed like a good way to start my own small business and make a living.”

Now as captain of the Tradewind, still based at the Santa Cruz Harbor, he’s been a commercial salmon and albacore fisherman for the past 40 years. “I love being out on the ocean,” says Moser. “We spend a lot of time out there, always on the chase, looking and hunting, and when they do bite, it’s fun. Then when we come back to harbor, it’s a big payday.”

“It’s great to get paid for doing something you love,” agrees Jerry Foster, a fellow veteran salmon fisherman also based in Santa Cruz and captain of the Codfather. Moser and Foster troll for salmon about five miles offshore from May through September, using poles and stainless steel cables, each strung with lures and 10 to 15 barbless hooks.

Like fishermen all around the Monterey Bay, they’ve seen their share of storms, days when they returned home empty handed and entire seasons shut down due to lack of fish, but mostly they remember the good times. “I’ve pulled in as many as 11 fish on one line at a time,” says Foster. And they believe that tomorrow might just be the next big haul. “I do my gambling on the water,” says Moser.

Their prized catch is Chinook salmon, the only type of salmon caught locally. It’s also known as king salmon and really is the royalty of seafood. In addition to tasting delicious and being packed with healthy omega-3s, the story of its long and dangerous river-to-sea-toriver life cycle has resonated with people living along the Pacific Coast for thousands of years.

“It’s a very charismatic and beautiful fish,” says Alan Lovewell, cofounder of Local Catch Monterey Bay. “Salmon has a very romantic story of all the struggles they go through swimming upstream, overcoming many hurdles only to spawn and die so the species can survive— so many allegories are possible.”

Local king salmon, when they are one year old, travel south from their breeding grounds in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, through the Delta and out to sea across the San Francisco Bay. Before the San Joaquin River was diverted for agriculture, they also came from there. The fish spend two years at sea, migrating as far north as Alaska, then coming back around to stop at Monterey Bay to feed on plentiful supplies of sardines and herring, before heading back home up the same rivers and creeks to spawn. So when they are caught here, they are at their maximum size and strength.

A hatchling ready for release. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Notch


While this summer is predicted to be a very good year for salmon fishing, the current drought is making the normal struggles of the salmon even harder. If young salmon can’t get out to sea or mature salmon can’t get upstream to lay their eggs, the effect of the drought will show up three to four years from now.

Overfishing is not an issue. “Local salmon populations are reasonably healthy right now. The fishery isn’t the major problem,” says Sam Wilding, a salmon analyst with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. “But there are so many threats. It’s kind of like death by a thousand pinpricks.”

Water is the main threat. “Even with average rainfall, the rivers aren’t as high as they should be for salmon to migrate,” says Wilding, adding that lower water levels mean slower moving water. Slow moving rivers and streams allow silt to settle over the gravel streambeds also needed by salmon to lay their eggs.

Pollution of creeks and rivers is another threat, as well as physical barriers like dams and storm drains. “It’s so difficult for salmon,” he says. “It’s almost like we’re doing everything we possibly can do to prevent them from living their normal lives.”

With water supplies at record lows, the state is faced with impossible decisions on whether to send scarce resources to towns, farmers or the fish. “The governor’s drought declaration allowed us to release less water for fish than we are normally required to because if we released the normal amount, there wouldn’t be anything left to release in the fall and all the fish we saved in February and March would die in September,” says California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird.

Laird, a former Santa Cruz mayor, is in the uncomfortable position of overseeing water resources, as well as fish and wildlife. “It’s really hard for the general public to realize how difficult this is,” he says. “The water’s just not there.”

“Usually 5 million acre feet are exported to the California aqueduct or the San Luis Reservoir. This year we’ve only exported 400,000 acre feet. That’s a huge difference. But we’re trying to shepherd resources to maintain the basic level of habitat for fish,” Laird adds.

While people sometimes see this as a battle for water between farmers and fishermen, Laird noted that state water released into the rivers also filters down to the aquifers used by farmers and helps prevent salt-water intrusion in their wells.


Fortunately, there’s an army of people and dozens of organizations working to make sure California’s native salmon survive. In recent years an increasing number of salmon are being bred in hatcheries along the tributaries of the Sacramento River.

The hatcheries raise millions of salmon for about a year and then, when they turn silvery, their adipose fins are clipped and tracking chips are inserted in their noses for identification.

Young hatchery fish are usually released into the upper reaches of the Sacramento River, but this year water levels were so low that they are all getting a free ride by tanker truck. Some 12 million 3-inch salmon are being trucked south this year and planted in the Delta, the San Francisco Bay and even the San Joaquin River.

It’s a drastic and controversial measure that may save the salmon fishing industry from disaster in three years’ time. But it could also wreak havoc with the imprinting habits of the fish, leaving them to wonder where to go when it’s time to swim back upstream and spawn. Few consumers are aware that the vast majority of Chinook salmon caught in the Monterey Bay are actually born in captivity. Since it’s too costly to tag more than 25% of the hatchery juveniles, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many come from there, but estimates range from 50–100%. We still call it wild salmon, but it’s not truly wild. There’s a lot of human intervention.

Jeremy Notch, a member of the Santa Cruz-based NOAA salmon ecology team, working with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is carrying out a 3-year project aimed at improving survival rates of juvenile salmon navigating the Sacramento River to the sea.

“Previous studies have shown that only 5–15% of the young salmon make it out to sea, but it’s probably worse now,” says Notch. For the project, they capture wild 3-inch salmon along Mill Creek near Chico and surgically implant an acoustic tag in their bellies. Receptors placed every 20 miles all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge can detect a pulse from the tag, letting the researchers know how far the young fish made it and helping to identify obstacles.

“Some of them get eaten by predators like striped bass or birds. Others get stuck in unscreened water diversion pipes and there are lots of places where the river is channeled through concrete—places predators can use as ambush points,” says Notch, who also hopes to prove that wild salmon are smarter than their hatchery cousins when it comes to swimming downstream.

The Carmel River is almost empty as it flows through parts of Carmel
Valley, but its levels will rise again after the planned removal of the
San Clemente Dam. Photo by Patrice Ward


Chinook salmon do not spawn in the streams and rivers of Santa Cruz or Monterey Counties, but we do get steelhead—a large variety of rainbow trout that behaves much like salmon. We also get a few coho salmon—a smaller, protected species.

Efforts to restore fish habitats for steelhead and coho are underway throughout the Monterey Bay area and have shown positive results. Last year the Fish and Wildlife Department lifted a ban on fishing for steelhead in local creeks because the steelhead population is close to being self-sustaining.

“Steelhead is such a good indicator species,” says Matt Weld, a habitat restoration engineer with Waterways Consulting in Santa Cruz. “If there are good steelhead numbers, we know we are doing something right.” Weld builds fish ladders, like the one at Camp Pico Blanco in Big Sur, and has worked on habitat restoration projects on the San Lorenzo River and Uvas Creek, a tributary of the Pajaro River. “There’s a lot of concern for maintaining low water flows in summer. In winter fish can swim upstream, but at low flow there are so many barriers,” he says. Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard just came on board earlier this year, but after serving at similar water agencies in Portland, Seattle and Reno, she says she’s all too familiar with “share the pain strategies” for rationing water between residential uses and low flow fish habitats to get through the drought.

“We recognize that fisheries, over eons, have experienced bad years so they have some ability to adapt to that situation over time,” she says. Since Santa Cruz gets all its water from surface sources like the San Lorenzo River and smaller creeks, she hopes to find a way to balance human needs and fish needs.

Federal agencies allow cities to take water from sensitive habitats if they prove they can mitigate the impact to fish through ecosystem restoration. “The goal is to get long-term certainty for the fish and long-term certainty for the water supply,” she says, adding that she’s put negotiations for a Habitat Conservation Plan on the back burner “until we get past the urgent drought situation.”

The most enormous habitat restoration project underway in our area is the removal of the 106-foot San Clemente Dam in the upper reaches of Carmel Valley.

Steelhead runs were once abundant in the Carmel River, but the dam, built in 1921, reduced flows to a trickle, damaging the habitat for fish and other animals. The river is being rerouted around the dam. A new gravel streambed will be built, and dismantling of the concrete dam itself is expected to begin this summer.

Restoration includes 25 miles of tributaries where steelhead historically spawned and will take several more years to complete. But it’s a project the community has rallied around—one that sparks the imagination and inspires hope.

The Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project is another group working to restore populations of coho salmon and steelhead in local creeks and rivers. “My father took me fishing in these streams when I was a kid back in the ‘60s,” says board member Matt McCaslin. “It just blew me away seeing these giant fish in the tiny streams around here.” The group, which has been around since the last big drought in the mid-1970s, brings together fishermen, students and environmentalists to help re-establish populations of these native fish.

They operate the Kingfisher Flat Fish Hatchery on land donated by Big Creek Lumber in Swanton. It’s a unique hatchery specifically designed for genetic preservation. They capture wild coho salmon from Scott Creek— the last remaining coho habitat south of San Francisco— and breed them according to a computer-generated matrix to ensure the most genetically diverse population possible. This year project volunteers released 28,000 juvenile coho in Scott Creek and San Vicente Creek. They hope to expand the releases in upcoming years to include the San Lorenzo River and creeks in San Mateo County. It may take 10 years or more, but if they are successful, we could see our native coho salmon join the ranks of the prized catches of fishermen on Monterey Bay.

But if our extreme drought continues or worsens, will our salmon and steelhead continue their comeback and thrive in the future? It’s hard to imagine the fish’s devoted supporters giving up without a fight. “Salmon are a species that just seems to bring people together when it comes to environmental issues,” says NOAA’s Jeremy Notch.

Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys covering our growing local foods movement. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.


Pan-Roasted Monterey Bay King Salmon
with Dungeness Crab Succotash, Asparagus Tips
and Meyer Lemon Hollandaise,
courtesy of Brant Good, The Wharf Marketplace

Jim Moser prepares his boat, Tradewind, for salmon season. Photo by Rob Fisher


Water quality in the Monterey Bay doesn’t really affect king salmon, since they are only passing through on their migration routes. But what about other fish and crustaceans that grow up and live in the bay? How safe are they to eat? It’s difficult to get a straight answer from the authorities on that, but Dane Hardin—a marine biologist who measures contaminants for the Central Coast Long-Term Environmental Assessment Network or CCLEAN—says he still eats fish caught in the bay, except for in Elkhorn Slough. “Toxins in Elkhorn Slough exceeded human health limits,” he says. “And I used to eat a lot of local mussels, but I wouldn’t anymore.”

Alan Lovewell, founder of Local Catch Monterey Bay, is unequivocal. “We live in some of the healthiest waters in the world, “ Lovewell says, “because sanctuary status and state regulations limit human use, there’s no oil extraction, there’s little to no industry around the bay and there’s no heavy marine traffic.”

Hardin takes measurements 5 miles offshore from Watsonville and Marina over a 30-day period twice a year and has detected large quantities of “legacy pesticides” that are not legal anymore. These include chemicals like DDT, dieldrin—a toxic pesticide banned in 1989—and PCBs. In fact, PCBs have actually increased over the past two years, possibly due to discarded dredging materials from Moss Landing and the Santa Cruz Harbor. The pesticides almost certainly come from runoff from farms around the bay. But Hardin says, “It’s a little shocking to find them, when these things haven’t been used for nearly 40 years.”

Other scientists from the Moss Landing Marine Labs are taking part in an international project called Kelp Watch 2014 to test local waters for any sign of radiation transported by ocean currents from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in 2011. While initial results were not yet available at press time, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute say radiation quickly becomes diluted when it enters the ocean. They also report that biomagnification—the concentration of pollutants as they make their way up the marine food chain—is much less with radiation than with other contaminants like mercury or PCBs.

The California Water Quality Monitoring Council measures mercury contamination in sport fish caught in Monterey Bay. Its 2010 survey detected dangerous levels in shore fish living near the mouth of the Salinas River and Carmel Beach, but these areas are not used by commercial fishermen. The data have not been updated since. Watch for updates at www.mywaterquality.ca.gov/safe_to_eat.

It’s also worth noting that much of our fish is exported to Asia, where its high quality fetches higher prices than can be commanded locally. By contrast, most of the fish sold in the US is imported and only 2% is inspected on entry. So buying from your local fisherman helps to verify the origin, quality and variety of what you are buying.