Kenny Belov, co-owner of 2xSea, holds a fresh-caught chinook salmon (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Kenny Belov, co-owner of TwoXSea, holds a fresh-caught chinook salmon. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

The commercial fishing season for salmon off our piece of the Northern California coast opened last Thursday. Boats are starting to come into port with loads of the big fish — called king salmon by some, chinook by others, and Oncorhynchus tshawytscha by the truly geeky.

Alerted to the arrival of boats at San Francisco’s Pier 45 on Tuesday, photographer Mark Andrew Boyer went to check out the scene. He encountered some beautiful fish and a couple of the best people in the Bay Area to talk about them, fisherman Larry Collins and Kenny Belov, a restaurateur and wholesaler of sustainable fish.

The fish being landed now are so beautiful, the sight of them is so intoxicating, that it’s easy to forget how fragile their continued existence is.

Most of the salmon the commercial fleet is bringing in by line and hook are Sacramento River fall-run chinook. Unlike most other California salmon, the Sacramento River fish have not been listed as endangered or threatened under federal and state law. But along with other California salmon, their survival is a subject of concern. A crash in the Sacramento fall-run population led to a two-year shutdown of the fish in 2008 and 2009 and severe restrictions on catching them in 2010. Their numbers, hugely dependent on the production of juvenile salmon at Central Valley hatcheries, have recovered since then, and a big harvest by recent standards is expected this year.

But the drought is casting a shadow over the future of the fish and those who depend on them for a living. This year, federal and state hatchery managers are trucking 30 million baby salmon from hatcheries to the Delta or all the way to San Francisco Bay — the only way, they say, that any of the young fish would ever reach the ocean this year.

Here are Boyer’s conversations with Larry Collins and Kenny Belov:

Larry Collins, San Francisco Community Fishing Association:

“We’re getting everyone’s first salmon trip of the year. There’s some nice-looking fish coming in, so we’re getting some fish in the pipeline here. I think I hear barbecues firing up all over town. …

“The fish are always a little smaller at the beginning of the year. I’d say we’re averaging 10-pound or 11-pound fish, and I’ve seen up to maybe 18-pounders. They get larger as they feed all summer — they tend to put on about an inch and a pound a month over the summer. …

“Everybody has been working on their boats for the last month, not getting a paycheck, just spending money and not making money. So everybody is kind of hungry right now, and they’re very happy to get that first paycheck. …

“We’re lucky to live in California, where there is a population of king salmon. California is the biggest producer of king salmon, even more than Alaska. We have the Sacramento fish, we have the Klamath fish — those are two big runs in California — and the fleet this year will probably catch 300,000 fish. And if they do, there should be plenty of salmon all summer long.”

Fresh-caught salmon sit on ice at TwoXSea at Pier 45 (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Fresh-caught salmon sit on ice at TwoXSea at Pier 45 (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Kenny Belov, co-owner of TwoXSea:

“Our first boats unloaded on Sunday night. … So far, everyone has been really pleased with the quality and the size. It’s not completely wide open with a whole bunch of fish, but there’s definitely some fish on the market. …

“We’re seeing about a 12- to 14-pound average from our boats. The quality is phenomenal. They’re a nice, beautiful deep red — they’ve been feeding on krill. …

“The way we judge quality is how many scales are on the fish. How did the boats treat their fish? For us, that’s really important, and it starts when the fish first comes out of the water. Did the boat let the fish thrash around on the deck of the boat, or was it gently coddled, put into a slush and then brought back? …

“Salmon is critical for the local economy in all the coastal communities. It starts from the boats and the price that they are receiving for their fish; and then it goes to the hoist operators who are unloading the fish; then it comes to the wholesalers who are processing the fish and distributing the fish to restaurants; and then those restaurants are turning it around and selling it to the consumers. … The trickle-down effect is huge for this species and this fishery.”

Kenny Belov, co-owner of TwoXSea, cuts a piece of salmon (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Kenny Belov, co-owner of TwoXSea, cuts a piece of salmon. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor