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Free Salmon Draws Hordes to the Harbor

by Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle, July 5, 2003

Robust runs, low prices spur local fishermen to give it away

(Kurt Rogers) Robust runs, low prices spur local fishermen to give it away Half Moon Bay commercial fishermen celebrated the Fourth of July by appealing to one of America's deepest core values -- the desire for free stuff.

They handed out hundreds of silver-scaled, red-meated wild chinook salmon to delighted visitors at Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton-by-the-Sea on Friday,

simultaneously striking a blow for independence from tight-fisted wholesalers.

"When we're only getting 75 cents to $1.25 a pound (from wholesalers), we might as well give it away," said Duncan MacLean, the owner of the salmon troller Barbara Faye and a spokesman for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations.

MacLean and fellow troller Jim Anderson distributed about 400 chunks of salmon, each piece enough to feed four people.

Aspirants for the free fish apparently exceeded the supply, with about 500 people queued up along the Pillar Point Harbor dock to the parking lot.

MacLean said the giveaway was also a token of appreciation for a fantastic fishing season -- salmon are more abundant than they've been in years.

Further, the event was a savvy public relations effort to call attention to the off-the-boat retail trade fishermen are running at Pillar Point Harbor.

"We're selling seafood off the boats on most weekends throughout the year," said MacLean. "It's a great outing. People love to see the boats, the kids get to touch the crabs and fish. And people love talking to fishermen and getting their fish really fresh, without a middleman. Some of them walk out of here carrying their salmon like a baby."

Live rockfish -- especially favored by Asian customers, say fishermen -- were also purveyed at the docks on Friday.

"We've been out on the water for two days, so we're kind of sleepy," said Joe Robertson, who works on a small and battered boat called the Irene.

"We got lots of fish, though," said Robertson. "We catch them all by hook- and-line, then they go straight into the live wells."

The Irene's wells and tanks were indeed brimming with ling cod and rockfish of various species.

"We'll get between $5 and $9 a pound (retail)," Robertson said. Fresh whole salmon are currently selling to dockside customers for about $3.50 a pound, said MacLean.

Beneficiaries of the hand-out were enthusiastic about the dock sales program.

"I came down here for my free piece of fish, but then I decided I wanted to support the fishermen, so I bought another whole salmon," said Cephas Hisatake of Daly City. "I figure they're doing something for us, so I'll do something for them."

While fishery stocks have been depleted around the globe, California's chinook salmon fishery is a happy exception. Populations have been robust for the past several years -- due primarily to increased water releases down natal rivers from government dams, say scientists -- and the current season bodes to be the best since 1988.

Salmon are "stacked up from the Cordell Bank (near the Farallones) to Fort Ross," said MacLean, and "they're bigger than we've ever seen them for this time of year. Normally, you start off the season with fish averaging 8 pounds, eventually going up to 13 pounds. This year, the fish started at 16 pounds, and I've had one trip where they averaged 20 pounds. It's incredible."

MacLean said the waters off the coast are teeming with marine life of all varieties.

"We're seeing a lot of whales, and there are huge quantities of krill," he said. "We're seeing enormous numbers of baby rockfish and hake -- the salmon are gorging on them. If (the federal government) is serious about restoring rockfish, they should extend the salmon season for us."

Federal agencies recently placed tough restrictions on rockfish quotas because several species have been overfished.

There is less competition out on the fishing grounds these days, said Anderson, the owner and operator of the troller Allaine, and that's also helping fishermen. The California salmon fleet has dwindled from about 5,000 boats to 500 in the past 15 years. Anderson, who has been fishing all his life,

is determined to hang tough.

"I grew up on my father's party boat, sleeping in the sink and steering from an apple crate when I was five," said the muscular, silver-haired fisherman.

"With any luck, those of us who remain can survive," Anderson said. "Having this retail outlet for our fish really helps us when the prices (from distributors) get too low, as they are now."

The fishermen weren't shy about using the giveaway as a bully pulpit for expounding on the virtues of wild salmon.

"People are finally starting to understand the problems with farmed salmon, " MacLean said. "The recent lawsuit (against major grocery chains) over improper labeling about the dyes that are used to make farmed salmon pink really helped raise awareness. People also have to understand that pesticides and antibiotics are used in salmon farming, that the wastes from the salmon pens are horribly polluting and that farmed salmon simply doesn't taste as good as wild salmon."

As far as the folks lined up on the pier were concerned, that was just preaching to the choir.

"I come out here because I love the ocean and I love the boats, but I also love wild salmon," said Frank Zurzola of Danville. "Whenever I go to the grocery store, I always yell, 'When are you going to get some wild salmon?' The clerks don't know what I'm talking about yet, but I'm trying to educate them."

Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Free Salmon Draws Hordes to the Harbor
San Francisco Chronicle, July 5, 2003

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