A look at the realities of commercial fishing in the Santa Cruz Harbor
“The fleet is dying. There’s nobody left,” says Christian Zajac, spinning a fishing hook in his hands and standing on the deck of his 1932 Monterey-style fishing boat.
Zajac has been fishing black cod, salmon and rockfish in the Santa Cruz Harbor for 30 years, and has seen the Diaspora of fishermen first hand. He says the decline began within the last 15 years when restrictions were placed on fishing for rockfish in designated areas along the coast, and then plummeted further as the salmon population declined.
“At least four whole docks had fishing boats 15 years ago, now there are probably only 10 full-time fishermen left,” says Zajac.
According to Harbormaster Chuck Izenstark there are currently 35 commercial fishing boats in the Santa Cruz Harbor. Ten years ago there were twice as many. Izenstark says that in the 1990s, the harbor fishermen brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish a year—mostly salmon. Now, he says only 100,000 pounds of fish are landed each year.
Salmon season opened again this week after a hiatus in June and a near complete closure for the last three years.
“We haven’t had a wide open full traditional season in maybe 20 years,” says salmon fisherman Mike Stiller.
Stiller has been fishing mostly salmon from the Santa Cruz Harbor since 1972. He is president of the local Commercial Fishman’s Marketing Association, Inc. and a board member on the California Salmon Council.
He says that although he’s happy to be fishing salmon again this year, the season’s been slow.
“What saved us was [that] around Santa Cruz the fish were big,” Stiller says, noting that the industry average for a season is about an 11-pound salmon and that this year, “we averaged a couple days of 18-19 pound salmon.”
Out of all the fish landed in the Santa Cruz Harbor, salmon is the most lucrative fish on a per pound basis, Stiller says. This year was no exception. Instead of the usual pricing of $3.50-$4 per pound, the fish was going for $6.50 a pound. But he attributes this in part to increased demand, and says it probably won’t last.
“That’s why it’s now $18.99 a pound in the grocery store and $30 in restaurants,” says Stiller.
He reminisces about fishing 30 years ago—when things were cheaper, fuel was $.70 a gallon and fishermen got $4 a pound for their salmon.
Stiller says the last six or seven years of salmon fishing have been particularly bad, and many fishermen have abandoned their craft in search of something more profitable.
He remembers when fishermen would pull up to the dock and sell fish straight off of their boats. That can’t happen anymore—to do so sellers have to carry a resale license and required equipment. He goes on to say that other things have changed, too. Now they don’t used barbed hooks and there are no trawlers in the harbor like in years past. “We use hook-and-line fishing,” Stiller says. “You’re only catching with bites, not what’s in the way.”
This method allows a high percentage of shakers (undersized salmon) and other by-catch to survive.
“All won’t live but it’s a high percentage [that do],” Stiller says. “It’s one of the most inefficient fishing [methods] there is but it’s the most sustainable.”
Zajac says that being sustainable has cost many fishermen their livelihood.
“Small-boat fleets need something to fall back on besides salmon and one of those things is to allow us to catch more rockfish,” Zajac says. “If we can’t access that, we’re doomed.”
In 2003, NOAA Fisheries established coastal commercial Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) to “protect and assist in the rebuilding of stocks of lingcod and seven species of rockfishes, all of which were formally declared overfished by NOAA Fisheries,” according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
These areas prohibit fishing for rockfish in huge swaths of sea along the continental shelf. According to Zajac, 50 percent of harbor fishermen left when the RCAs were established. He stuck around, but says he has to go 10 miles out to sea in very deep water to fish for rock cod, and is required to have a VMS satellite on his boat so his boat can be tracked and potentially fined for stopping in the protected area.
“There’s a huge abundance of rockfish on the [continental] shelf that we can’t access,” he says.
According to Fish and Game, “When stocks of the seven rockfish species are rebuilt, the RCA will likely be removed.”
Because of the ban, Zajac sees people instead buying rockfish from Canada and Mexico.
“The local markets are buying fish from other countries when there’s fish right here in our waters,” he says. “If they open up the shelf it’d put less pressure on the salmon because we’d have something to fish for.”
But salmon is a different story, Stiller adds.
“When you don’t fish for three years and there’s still no fish, you can’t blame it on overfishing,” he says.
The problem, he says, lies further up the Sacramento delta where the fish spawn. “They can’t get past [and] across all the manmade diversions,” he says.
Salmon eggs hatch in the Sacramento River and come down to the delta. To do so they have to go through pumps and deal with droughts.
Stiller says there needs to be at least 122,000 spawners in the Sacramento River in order to sustainably fish. Two years ago it dropped down to 40,000.
“No matter what, there’s not enough fish and to put a commercial fishing fleet on top of it exacerbates it,” Stiller says. “It may not be [our] fault but still [they] can’t let [us] fish. We’re out there to kill fish, but you want to do it in a sustainable way—you have to.”
Still, Zajac says, despite the withering fishing industry in the Santa Cruz Harbor, the fishermen will forever be optimists.
“While everyone else is going over to San Jose, I’m going out into a sea with an endless horizon,” he says. “The best days are the days when you catch fish and the weather’s calm. You forget the days that the weather beats the crap out of you. That optimism is the only thing keeping this skeleton fleet alive. To have to move a boat because two humpback male whales are breeching 30 feet out of the water and coming toward you is something that makes you feel like part of nature, a very small part of nature.”
Stiller says being a fisherman is hard on family and social life, but there’s a sense of camaraderie among fishermen like none other.
“We take care of each other out there,” he says, adding, “There isn’t anyone that does this that couldn’t make more money doing something else. It’s a hard life to do unless you like the fishing life.”
He gets into a rhythm whether he goes out to sea three days at a time or fishes locally. He’ll dip into Soquel Hole, a finger off the Monterey Canyon and a traditional spot to fish for salmon. Then there’s Three Trees up the coast—but only old-timers know that one because the three pine trees that marked the spot were cut down years ago, he says.
Days before he’s set to go salmon fishing later this week, Stiller has food packed on the boat and his sleeping gear on board. “I’m ready to go,” he says.