Sacramento Bee, 15 March 2006

Salmon season, livelihoods on brink

To preserve the Klamath River's chinook, fishing could be banned off a large stretch of the California and Oregon coasts. But the survival of an industry is also threatened.

By Matt Weiser -- Bee Staff Writer
2:15 am PST Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee

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Along 700 miles of the Pacific Coast, fishing towns and fishermen are facing the unthinkable this spring: a total closure of the salmon season.

For consumers, it means there may be no local wild chinook (or king) salmon in markets and restaurants this year.

For fishermen, it could mean bankruptcy, the end of a way of life.

"I hate to try and imagine how bad my life is going to get," said Larry Collins. He and his wife, Barbara Emley, are among the last commercial salmon fishers who still live and work in San Francisco. "I've been doing this 21 years, and I'm not really positioned to do anything else."

The prospect is even harder to bear because, this time, fishermen share none of the blame. And tragically, salmon overall are expected to be abundant this year, thanks to healthy runs on the Sacramento River and its tributaries, including the American River. These fish make up the vast majority of commercial salmon caught in the ocean off California and Oregon.

The blame falls, instead, on government and private interests who have failed to resolve their differences in just one corner of chinook habitat: the Klamath River.

The overall Klamath chinook population is expected to hit its second-lowest level in 20 years. Fish returning this year to spawn naturally are predicted to fall below a critical management threshold for the third year in a row.

Because these fish mingle in the ocean with Sacramento River salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service says a total ban on ocean chinook fishing is the only way to protect the few remaining Klamath fish.

The ban is proposed between California's Point Sur and Oregon's Falcon Point, a vast area where chinook represent a $150 million industry and the cornerstone of many local economies.

"Most of our boats that fish here, the primary income from fishing is salmon," said Mike Stiller, a commercial fisherman in Santa Cruz for 30 years. "It's part of the heritage of this state. You could live without it. You could live without grapevines, too. But it's part of the history and the culture of this state."

Stiller and other fishermen blame government officials for failing to solve the Klamath River's long-standing problems. The result could be the end of a commercial fishing tradition that, in some coastal towns, goes back a century or more.

Tony Anello and his wife, Carol Ann, own Spud Point Crab Co. in Bodega Bay. Crab is a significant part of the business, but half their revenue comes from salmon. Their son Mark is poised to become the fourth generation in the business after investing $150,000 in a boat. The season closure could end his hopes.

"We really worked hard to get our local wild king salmon in the marketplace, and now we're going to be just devastated," Tony Anello said. "It's all caused by the federal government, it's not caused by us, but we're the ones paying for it."

Many blame a Bush administration decision in 2002 to ignore its own federal biologists and divert more water from the Klamath River for farm irrigation. The decision put salmon in jeopardy as they tried to swim upriver to spawn.

An estimated 70,000 fish were killed that fall in stagnant pools on the lower Klamath by disease and suffocation - about half of them chinook salmon.

A 2003 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was the worst die-off in history on the Klamath, and possibly the entire Pacific Coast.

The report blamed the deaths on a combination of low water flows and a relatively large spawning run, which worsened the crowding and caused deadly parasites to spread.

Because those fish didn't spawn, fewer adults remained in the ocean two years later, prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service to abbreviate the commercial salmon season last year. Some fishermen say the decision slashed their income by 50 percent.

Last year, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Fort Bragg Salmon Restoration Association had to buy fish from Alaska for its "World's Largest Salmon BBQ," a fundraiser.

As Larry Collins put it, a "death spiral" has begun, both for chinook and the people who depend on them.

Only 24,000 fall chinook spawned naturally in the Klamath in 2004, followed by 27,000 last year. This year, fisheries managers predict 29,000 spawners.

Under federal rules, three straight years below a spawning objective of 35,000 fish triggers a "conservation alert."

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced at a meeting in Seattle on March 7 that it may be forced to close the salmon season to save next fall's spawners, even though they are only a small percentage of the fish caught commercially in the ocean.

The ban would apply to ocean sport fishing, as well, and a recreational fishing ban is likely on the Klamath River itself.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council will make a recommendation on the closure at meetings in Sacramento in early April. But the council is only an advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which can impose the closure on its own.

The commercial salmon season normally begins May 1 in California, and April 1 in Oregon.

"We're trying to save what we can," said Scott Barrow, a senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, a voting member of the management council. "It's a huge economic and political decision that's going to have to take place."

Meanwhile, little has changed where the problem began - on the Klamath River.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continues to follow the same water diversion policy blamed for killing salmon in 2002. That is the case even though fishing and environmental groups, led by the nonprofit group Earth justice, won a federal appellate court ruling in October invalidating the policy. The group now hopes for another ruling to require a change in flows while a new plan is developed.

John Hicks, planning division chief at the agency's Klamath regional office, rejected the idea that agricultural diversions are behind the salmon die-off. He said the water his agency controls represents only 11 percent of the flow at the mouth of the Klamath, where the fish died in 2002.

"It's pretty hard for us to make significant impacts no matter what we do, which is part of the problem," said Hicks. "Everybody's kind of looking for the silver bullet: There must be one thing out there we can do that's going to fix it. But it's a very complicated system."

That view is echoed by Peter Moyle, professor of fish biology at UC Davis. Moyle served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the Klamath's problems in 2003.

The panel found that a host of problems are killing the Klamath, including high water temperatures and sedimentation caused by logging, road construction and agriculture. It recommended new land-management rules, as well as acquiring water rights for fish on the Klamath's tributaries, especially the Trinity and Scott rivers.

It also recommended removing Iron Gate Dam, the first of six major dams on the Klamath River, which has no fish ladders.

"The chinook salmon are just the tip of the iceberg," Moyle said. "The decline of the salmon fishery is just a major indicator of the seriousness of problems on the Klamath River in general."

Those six dams on the Klamath are in the middle of the relicensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A coalition of environmental groups and American Indian tribes wants the commission to order removal of the lowest four dams, including Iron Gate.

The dams, owned by PacifiCorp, a unit of Scottish Power, provide hydroelectric power, but no water for farms or cities.

"What we hope will happen as an outcome is that we'll look at these dams and realize they don't provide the benefit to society that the commercial fishery does," said Craig Tucker, campaign coordinator for the Karuk tribe.

The closure proposal comes as commercial fishermen try to win international certification of California chinook as a "sustainable" fishery. Such a label is important to consumers who want to ensure their purchases don't deplete the environment.

David Goldenberg of the California Salmon Council said there is no inconsistency, even though the sustainability of Klamath River chinook is very much in doubt. The proposed ban, he said, shows the system is working to sustain Klamath fish.

It remains to be seen if fisherman will survive the closure.

"If we don't get an adequate season, we're out of business. We're broke. Belly up," said David Yarger, a Bodega Bay salmon fisherman. "It would be just like you walking into your office in the morning and having them tell you, 'We don't need you anymore.'"



Central Coast Sun Bulletin, May 13, 1998

HEADLINE:  Salmon selling faster than they can be caught

 by Richard Palmer

             MORRO BAY — Mark Tognazzini spent last week catching king salmon, which turned into flying fish once he reached port.
            Salmon flew off the boat when the Morro Bay fisherman started selling them late Friday afternoon.  What took him 3 ½ days to catch was gone in less than 48 hours.
            He sold the last fish Sunday morning, leaving him plenty of time to celebrate Mother’s Day.
            A good thing, as he owed them.  His mom, Henrietta, and wife, Bonnie, helped sell the salmon.  So did his dad, Wilmar, sisters Mary Fiala of Los Osos, and Anne Watton and husband Bill of Atascadero, two nephews and a niece.
            “In 28 years of fishing, this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said during a lull Saturday afternoon.  “People are really appreciative.”
            Price had something to do with it:  Tognazzini was selling whole salmon for $2.25 a pound, cutting it into steaks or fillets, whatever the buyer preferred.
            That’s a bargain compared to supermarket prices:  $4 a pound for steaks, $5 a pound for fillets.  A whole fish yields 80 percent of its weight in steaks, 70 percent in fillets.  The percentage goes up when the consumers use the head and collar for chowder, bouillabaisse or cat food.
            For buyers with little experience in preparing salmon, Tognazzini cut a combination of steaks and fillets, while other family members offered tips on the best way to cook it.
            Tip No. 1:  There is no best way.  Salmon tastes great baked, barbecued, broiled, sautéed or smoked.
            Fresh-from-the-boat salmon almost became a tasty memory last summer when a fish wholesaler protested the sales to the County Health Department.  Tognazzini found himself on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist order from health officials who said filleting the fish violated health laws.
            The matter wound up in the lap of the county supervisors last month, who found cutting fish isn’t as cut-and-dried as state health codes indicate.  There’s a dory fleet around Newport Beach that cuts and fillets its fish on the beach with impunity.  Also, sport fishing boats cut and fillet fish caught by passengers, again without incident.  After testimony from local and state health officers, supervisors gave a vote of confidence to the commercial fishermen and their ability to safely and cleanly handle the fish they catch.
            Since then, Tognazzini said, fishermen have met with health officials to work out guidelines for safe handling and cutting of fish sold from boats.
            “We’ve had a couple of meetings with county health and we’re making good progress,” he said.  “I think there’s a better understanding on both sides now.”
            The deck of the Bonnie Marietta was spotless Saturday as Tognazzini sliced salmon for waiting customers.  They were outnumbered by onlookers who just want to see the shiny silver fish, and watch as they were turned into pink fillets.
            Wilmar Tognazzini noted that his son was providing what people want to see when they visit Morro Bay.  “This is a real attraction,” said the longtime resident.
            The fish ranged from 6 to 14 pounds, with 8 pounds being average.  Tognazzini caught them between Diablo Canyon and Morro Rock, which continued to be the hot spot on the California coast early this week.
            Tognazzini was on board the Bonnie Marietta again Tuesday, fishing for more salmon to sell this coming weekend.  The weather had slowed the bite, and Tognazzini was hoping it would pick up.  Otherwise, he’ll be sold out by Saturday.    
“We could be done real quick,” he said.
            The season ends Sept. 30, but the fish are usually gone by mid-July.  “But all bets are off with El Niño,” he said.


SLO Magazine, October 1998

 TITLE:  Mark Tognazzini, From Fisherman To You

 by Mike Malkin and Josh Malkin

             Mark Tognazzini, a Morro Bay commercial fisherman, has changed the way a lot of people on the Central Coast buy their fresh fish.  As a result, he’s also made it easier for fishermen from San Pedro to Eureka to sell directly from their boats to the public just like he does.  One Saturday in July after he had finished selling from his boat docked across the Embarcadero from the Kite Galore shop, he invited us to go fishing with him so we could watch how he handles his catch.
            Several days later, as we made our way out of Morro Bay harbor on the thirty-eight-foot-long Bonnie Marietta, the top half of the gigantic rock was still shrouded in early morning fog.  At the harbor’s mouth, a half dozen sea otters watched us glide by.  Inside the cabin, Mark’s radio crackled with greetings, jokes, and advice from friends on other boats.  He flicked on his fish finder and gave us a quick course on how to read it—pointing out schools of “feeder fish” (such as anchovies) so dense that they appeared as solid red blobs on his screen.  Prodded by our questions, he went on to explain the workings of his radios, radar, LORAN Sea Plotter and GPS system.  He noted in passing that he can pinpoint his location to within nine feet, or converse via radio with people nearly halfway around the world.
            The fact that he takes such pride in his equipment does not surprise us.  The Bonnie Marietta is well equipped, impeccably organized, and incredibly clean.  Though by no means one of the larger boats on the Bay, it has everything necessary for trips of up to five days.  It offers a simple kitchen, sleeping quarters, replacement riggings, and enough space to store between eight and ten tons of slush, ice and freshly caught fish.
            Mark throws stabilizers—he calls them “flopper stoppers”—into the water on each side of his boat.  Then his practiced hands connect the “flashers,” “hoochies,” and forty pound weights to the four lines he’ll be using.  He can fish up to six lines—three rigged to each trolling pole—but not today.  By the time we took our trip in mid-August, the salmon, which provide the core of his business, had all but disappeared from the region.  Albacore, which makes up the bulk of his sales from late August through September had not yet arrived.  He apologizes for the fact that this is likely to be a slow day.  His apology is made while he’s constantly moving around the boat.  One moment he’s using both hands and his teeth to rig his lines.  The next instant he’s on the radio joking with a buddy.  Then he’s out on deck checking his lines or cleaning his fish.  Then he’s opening his hatch and dropping his catch down into the hold to ice them.  We’re left to wonder what it would be like on a “busy” day.
            We ease southward.  Mark comments that the number of commercial fishermen working out of Morro Bay has declined by more than fifty percent during the past fifteen years.  Tougher fishing regulations, increasing costs, decreasing profit margins and a number of other factors have taken their toll.  Although he doesn’t actually say so, the determined look on his face tells us that Mark is not inclined to give up.
            Most important evidence of this dedication is the fact that he has changed the way he works in order to stay in business.  Using the model of the Newport Dory Fleet in Southern California which has been selling directly to customers for one hundred years, he has been selling his catch to an eager, loyal and constantly growing customer base since the spring of 1997.
            Shortly after seven o’clock, his cell phone rings.  It’s a customer wanting to know whether Mark will be open for business on the next day and what he will have to sell.  Although Mark is particularly proud of his salmon and albacore, it’s clear that most of his customers will be happy with whatever he happens to have because they it’s fresh.  As Mark repeats several times during the day, “It’s a great product.  The fish sell themselves.”  As he hangs up the phone and moves back onto the deck to check his lines, he comments about how careful he is with his catch.  “I try to ice the fish every half hour or so.  The trick to keeping really fresh fish is to get it iced as soon as possible.  One hour on the deck is worth about six hours of shelf life.  People come to me because of the quality of my product and the price.  People who want good product are willing to wait until Saturday when I sell from the boat.  They’re tolerant of all the uncertainties of the real catch.  I can’t afford to disappoint them.”
           In fact, the cell phone rings frequently throughout the day.  People want to know whether he’ll be open or if he’ll “reserve” a fish for them.  The answer to the latter question is always a courteous “no.”  Although obviously pleased by the enthusiasm and persistence of his customers, he explains that he has to adhere to his policy of “first come first served” or people will begin to not show up.  He’s worked too hard for that to happen.
            By selling directly to consumers, Mark doubles his profit over what he would make if he sold to wholesalers.  At the same time, his customers pay less for fresher fish.  But he only sells on Saturdays—extending over into Sunday if the catch is particularly good.  Typically he sells between April and October.  He has made many friends among his customers and other local fishermen.  While some of the local retailers and wholesalers understand that he is just a small businessman trying to make a living, others are not so understanding.  One wholesaler who had done business with Mark for many years owns a fuel and ice vending station.  He now refuses to sell him these vital necessities.  Mark is clearly disturbed by the situation, but not daunted.
            As we talk about his human competition, Mark constantly checks his lines.  Harbor seals and sea lions—his other competitors—are also checking.  They follow the boat hoping for an easy meal.  He gestures towards them.  “For every four fish I hook, they get at least one.  We’re all trying to survive out here.”
            Mark winches in his lines and moves north to troll about a mile off shore between Morro Bay and Cayucos.  The fish finder again picks up large schools of bait fish and the fishing improves almost immediately.  Mark is attempting to catch fish feeding on these schools or around rock formations along the bottom.  He speeds up and then slows down to raise and lower his lines in order to follow the contours of rocky outcrops on the ocean floor without losing his rigs.
            As he brings in yet another halibut, he quips, “The three most important things about fishing are location, location and location.  Fishing for rock fish is relatively easy.  If you know or can find where the rocks are you can find the fish.  Salmon and albacore move around a lot.  This year we’ve been catching salmon in thirty to forty fathoms.  Next year the situation could be completely different; water temperatures, shifting currents, weather conditions...”
After several hours at sea, we head back to dock.  We return the next morning—a Saturday—at 7:30 a.m. to be ready to take photographs when Mark opens at 8:00 a.m.  Mark’s wife, Bonnie, is setting up a dockside table to do business.  His daughter, Leah, is getting ready to help weigh the fish.  His nephew, Kyle, and his young friends Richard and Daniel Jung are also around to assist.  His father, Wilmar, who will help to wash the fish, is talking to some of the folks who are waiting.  Although Mark does all of the actual cutting of the fish, there’s a lot to do.
            Eighteen people are already in line.  Barbara Brunner from Los Osos says she buys from Mark as often as she can because, “He has fresh product and great prices.”  Morro Bay City Manager, Dave Cole, and his wife, Marie, are also in line.  When asked why they’re here, Marie laughs and says, “Because it’s the best fish around.  You can’t get it any fresher.”  Dave adds, “He takes the time to answer questions.  He’ll fillet or steak the fish for you any way you want it.”  Marie continues, “We got here at 7:15 a.m. and there was already a line.  Even before he opens, Mark is working the crowd, developing rapport with his customers, finding out what they want, sharing recipes.  It’s fun...”
            By a little after eight o’clock, the atmosphere is lively.  People in line are getting acquainted with one another and exchanging fish recipes.  Bonnie, Mark and everyone on board are hustling to keep up with the orders.  One gentleman from the area is trying to convince several others that the very top of Morro Rock should be carved into the shape of gigantic salmon, albacore and rockcod.  “Something that could be seen from miles away ... a kind of maritime Mount Rushmore.  Tourists would love it.”  Most of those in line politely disagree.  Others turn to marvel at Mark’s dexterity and speed as he prepares each order.
            We pack up our things, say our good-byes and walk out to the truck.  It’s been a couple of memorable and instructive father/son days.  Of course the image of a “maritime Mount Rushmore atop Morro Rock” provokes some conversation on the way home.  Hmmm ... all that and fresh fish dinner too.