King Salmon: Is the Drought Threatening California’s Favorite Fish? | CUESA

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May 29, 2015

King Salmon: Is the Drought Threatening California’s Favorite Fish?

California salmon lovers spend a good part of the year waiting for summer, which normally heralds the return of our wild king salmon, aka the Chinook. But so far, the season (which opened on May 1) has gotten off to a slow start and been mostly disappointing. What’s in store for our beloved California salmon?

Santa Cruz fishmonger Hans Haveman of H & H Fresh Fish Co. is optimistic that the season will improve but fears for salmon’s future. Warmer river temperatures and four years of drought have taken their toll on king salmon populations, and we’ll be feeling those dramatic impacts in the coming years. Wildlife agencies have resorted to extreme measures to protect the next generation, such as installing water chillers and trucking young hatchery salmon downstream to bypass dried-up riverbeds.

With the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch as his guide, Hans sells locally caught seafood at farmers markets throughout the Bay Area as well as through wholesale and a CSS (community-supported seafood) program. We talked with Hans about the future of the king and the state of sustainable seafood in California.

CUESA: What’s happening with king salmon this season?

Hans Haveman: It was kind of a dismal opener. There were practically no fish around. Our first couple markets we only had a little bit of fish. But last weekend we had more than enough. It’s still up to Mother Nature. There’s a 10-day closure on the California coast at the beginning of June to protect a certain summer run. During those days, I should be able to get some fish down from Oregon. I’ll do my best to make sure we have king through the rest of the summer.

CUESA: Has fishing this season been affected by the drought?

HH: It’s not the drought, but it’s definitely some strange weather-related issues and ocean conditions. There’s a lot of warm water this year, which makes the fish harder to catch because they’re not concentrating in the areas that they normally do.

But I think this year is going to be a decent season. The biggest impact is there’s not a lot of fish to be caught, and it’s a supply-and-demand situation. Everybody wants this fish now. People all over the US have learned that the California king is one of the best out there. Demand keeps the price up at the boats, which translates to $25 or $30 a pound at the store.

The next few years will be the first years that the drought will affect the fish in the ocean. We don’t yet know how many fish reproduced in the rivers and how many fish will make it back.

CUESA: Can you explain a bit about how the drought affects the salmon’s lifecycle?

HH: The fish go up the river and spawn, and the baby salmon grow into smolts and work their way down to the ocean within a year or two. They spend five or six years in the ocean, and then they go back up the river they were born in to spawn again and die. If there’s no water, they can’t swim downstream to the ocean or back upstream to reproduce. We’re affected by the water conditions from five or six years ago. Next year will be the fifth year of drought, so we’ll be seeing the effects in the next few years. There’s a good chance the regulators will completely shut the fishery down.

CUESA: What’s driving up the cost of salmon right now?

HH: The main challenge is getting the fish from the fishermen. There’s not a lot we can fish for because of regulation. That’s the problem with sustainable seafood that no one really talks about. I get calls almost weekly from big companies asking to buy every bit of sustainable seafood I have because there’s such a demand. There was a time when I could sell my salmon for $8 or $9 a pound, and people could have a BBQ. Now they can only eat it on their birthdays.

I’ve been doing this so long that I have a really good fleet of small boat fishermen that I’m able pay a higher price, and they in turn bring the fish to me. The price to the fishermen this year is the most I’ve ever paid for salmon, $9 a pound for whole fish. I only get 50% yield, so I’ve got $18 into a piece of salmon before it even gets to market, plus I’ve got labor, insurance, health department, and other costs. There are so many people after this fish now that if I don’t give the fishermen the highest price, they go to the next person. It is a wild product and it is seasonal, which makes it difficult to source. 

CUESA: You aim to source all of your seafood locally and sustainably. What are some of the challenges you face as a fishmonger?

HH: California regulations are extremely tight. You can guarantee you’re eating a sustainable piece of fish if it was caught in California. It’s a very well regulated fishery.

That also limits what sustainable fish sellers can get. I bring everything that I can get my hands on from our local waters. Beyond that I try to stay on the West Coast: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, sometimes Canada. We’re not like an average fish market that you can walk into and buy seafood from all over the world. We’re sticking to sustainability guidelines. We do our best to get stuff from within 100 miles of the farmers market. Sometimes I’m at 90% of that in the summertime. I’m reaching out a little bit farther in order to bring some fish that people demand, like ahi tuna from Hawaii.

Fish has become a really hard resource to sell at farmers markets because it’s gotten really expensive. There’s also chicken, beef, and other proteins, all sustainably done. It used to be just fish at most farmers markets. I’ve been in the business doing farmers markets for 13 years, and I’ve had to really expand to make a living.

CUESA: What are some local and sustainable alternatives to salmon this season?

HH: Pacific halibut and white seabass will be coming in, as well as black cod and rockfish. I have a couple trawlers here that are fishing for petrale and English sole. There’s been a lot of lingcod this year, which is all hook-and-line caught off of a tiny boat. There’s always something in season.

There are casual farmers market shoppers, and there are the shoppers who really want to know where their food comes from. That’s the most fun part for us. A lot of people who work for me were or are commercial fishermen. We can answer any questions. A good fishmonger helps people determine what’s sustainable.

Look for H & H Fresh Fish Co. at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in the south driveway on Saturdays. For questions or to place an order for pickup at the market, visit www.hhfreshfish.com or contact Hans or Heidi (his wife and partner) at info@hhfreshfish.com or 831.461.1576.

Looking for salmon recipes? Visit our recipe archive.

Hans and Heidi photo courtesy of H & H Fresh Fish Co.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »