HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- California fishers are bringing home a huge haul of king salmon this season -- but it's been a mixed blessing.
A glut of the pink-fleshed fish means buyers are paying much lower prices, a problem the California Salmon Council says is made worse by similarly ''phenomenal'' seasons in Oregon and British Columbia, and stiff competition from farmed salmon imported from Chile and Norway.
California boasts the West Coast's largest wild chinook, or king salmon population, and consistently lands the nation's largest catch, followed closely by Alaska, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
This season, fishers have hooked 4.3 million pounds of salmon as of Aug. 4, or more than 345,000 fish, with nearly two months left to fish. That's up from last year's 2.2 million pounds, or about 180,000 fish, according to David Goldenberg, manager of the Sacramento-based salmon council.
But the bounty has meant prices of $2.50 per pound to as little as 64 cents per pound, he said. That could put the 2002 average below last year's $1.95. The fish can fetch nearly twice that in leaner times.
Since fuel and maintenance costs have remained stable, some fishermen have switched to pricier albacore tuna to make ends meet, and others are selling their catch directly from their boats to the public to net a better price.
''This was an absolute reaction to prices,'' said fisher David Friedman, who has spent 19 years plying the waters and increasingly hawks salmon from his boat, the Sunday.
Rather than settle for the roughly $2 per pound offered by buyers this week, Friedman has snared $3 to $3.50 per pound from fish lovers who congregate along the misty docks at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. He can sell as many as 60 fish each weekend, including a glistening 19-pounder that swayed from his scale Monday. That fish went for about $60.
Fishers have to get creative, he said, to compete with cheaper, more consistent supplies of farmed salmon that increasingly crowd grocery store fish cases. California law currently does not require sellers to label whether fish are wild or farmed, the council said.
According to the Fisheries Service, the United States imported more than 2,500 metric tons of farmed Chinook from Canada and Chile in 2000. Fishermen landed 7,305 metric tons of wild salmon along the Pacific coast that year, and exported 11 percent of the catch to Japan.
Japan's depressed economy also has contributed to this year's price drop, Goldenberg said, since those extra fish have remained in American markets.
So why all the fish? Aside from a strong Chinook run, Chamois Andersen of the California Department of Fish and Game said regulators also have opened more of the coast to fishing and extended the season. Modeling systems now have more years of data to crunch, allowing for regulators to pinpoint more precise locations for fishing restrictions, Andersen said.
Efforts to improve habitat and maintain sufficient water levels for salmon to spawn along the Sacramento River and other major tributaries also have helped, she said.
This year's catch still pales next to 1988, when fishermen landed a whopping 14.4 million pounds of salmon, or about 1.3 million fish. There was less foreign competition then, keeping average prices at $3.89 per pound, Goldenberg said.
Chinook salmon are the largest of the salmon species, and are found from Northern Alaska to Central California, as well as from Northern Japan to the Bering Sea on the east coast of Asia.
On the Net:
California Salmon Council: http://www.calkingsalmon.org
Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission: http://www.psmfc.org
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