“Salmon in California – a Swimming Contradiction”

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“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction” – The Pilgrim, by Kris Kristofferson

In the USA, the first day of Spring is 20th March. Easter comes early this year, on 31stMarch, immediately followed by April Fool’s Day and, before you know it, California’s wild salmon season will be upon us. Gosh! I love our Pacific salmon. For several years we didn’t have a commercial salmon season, the stocks were just too low. Last year was the first real season for four years. The hope and early outlook for 2013 is positive too.

But, Pacific salmon are like Kris Kristofferson’s pilgrim, partly truth and partly fiction. A fisherman may catch a fine king salmon out in the ocean. A tribal fisherman may set his net in the Klamath and pull out a beautiful, fat chinook. The salmon may have been caught in the wild. But, odds are that’s not where it was born.

It was born in a hatchery.

That’s right.

In fact, the latest DNA tests done on California kings reveal that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 95%-98% of Californian salmon are hatchery-bred fish.

So much for argument of wild vs farmed. That’s a non-argument. These salmon aren’t ‘wild’. They’re ‘wild caught’. Please don’t get me wrong. I support our coastal fishing communities. I support our commercial salmon fishermen. I accept that without a strong hatchery program, our Pacific salmon would be in very dire straits. I love myth and romance, but I am also a realist.

The 2012 California commercial king salmon season was the best in almost 10 years. An analysis by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) reports 214,808 king salmon were unloaded at California docks in 2012, the most since 2005. The tribal fishery on the Kalmath contributed about another 115,000 fish. The combined ocean fishery and tribal fishery was almost 330,000 fish.

“Okay Dale,” you ask, “what’s your point?”

Good question.

I recall reading that California spends $20 million a year on 14 hatcheries for salmon and trout. So I went downloaded a copy of the 2012-2013 California budget. The actual figure, titled “Hatchery and Inland Fisheries Fund” is $23,913,000.

Okay, let’s make a few assumptions and do a little math. We’ll start by splitting the money down the middle. One half spent on salmon, the other half on trout. That gives us an estimated expenditure of $11,956,500 on hatchery salmon. I can’t say with certainty. but something tells me we probably spend more on salmon than we do on trout. But, to be fair and conservative, we’ll use the 50/50 split.

Let’s go one step further and also estimate the number of salmon caught by our sport fishermen. I called the Department of Fish and Game. They couldn’t give me an answer. One friendly fellow took my phone number and promised to call me back. With that, I am reminded of the old country music song “My Phone Is Still Not Ringing, So It Still Must Not Be You”!

So, for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that sport fishermen caught half as much as the commercial and tribal fisheries combined. That would be about 165,000 fish, raising the total number of salmon caught in California in 2012 up to 495,000 fish. Based on allocating an expenditure of $11,956,500.00 for hatchery salmon, every single salmon caught in California, was subsidised to the tune of $24.15 out of the state coffers.  If the average fish weighed 10 pounds the subsidy per lb was…well, you do the math…

So, don’t be fooled by the ‘wild’ tag. Our salmon are a swimming contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. I love them – and hope you do too!

          Dale Sims, Chief Fishmonger, CleanFish USA