What does a California ban on salmon mean for the livelihood of fishermen?

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Ben Hyman operates Wild Local Seafood out of Ventura, which supports 64 boats and sells their catch. Photo courtesy of Ben Hyman.

This time of year, Ben Hyman of Wild Local Seafood would like to be out on a boat, fishing for salmon. But for the second year in a row, federal fishery managers have closed all salmon fishing in California. The decision has devastated the state's fishermen. 

"The Sacramento River system and the various rivers that stem from it are major producers of king salmon. Some of the largest runs in the world, and especially on the West Coast, have [come] from this river system," Hyman says. "A lot of the fishing seasons are determined by how many fish make their way up the rivers."

An escapement goal, the base number of salmon that escape the ocean and make it up the river, needs to hit 180,000 to open the season. In 2023, the number barely reached 120,000, so Hyman and his fellow fishermen knew early on they were headed toward a ban. 

What has caused the decline? It boils down to water policy, Hyman says, with both state and federal agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, all having a say in the matter. 

Despite two wet years, California's long drought continues to impact where water is diverted and how salmon spawn. Salmon like cold, clear, clean water. Industrialized water systems such as canals, levees, and dams with low levels result in water being diverted for macro level agriculture. The small amount of water being allocated leaves little room for salmon and fishermen.

Last year's closure cost California fishermen approximately $45 million, with some sources saying that is only a fraction of the loss. Hyman says many of his colleagues have left the industry, including third-generation fishermen and those in the business for more than 50 years. He hopes that with the cyclical nature of salmon and good snowpack, the fish population will rebound. In the meantime, he encourages consumers to buy tuna from San Diego, sole from Central California, and local rock crab and black cod.

 "The average piece of fish that gets to America travels about 5,000 miles before it gets here, and usually we import about 70 to 90% of our seafood. So if you can, buy directly or from a source like Wild Local. We support 64 different local boats, not just mine. You're doing the right thing for local fishermen and maybe helping them just eat through this hard period [until] we can get back to fishing for salmon again."