The California king salmon season kicked off May 1 in the face of pandemic-induced uncertainty that had pulled the bottom out of many seafood markets. This concern was compounded, paradoxically, by possibility of strong salmon returns, flooding the market further driving the price down.

Through the first two weeks of commercial fishing for king salmon, the price stayed much higher than expected, and the run smaller.

“People were fearing that two bucks was going to be the opening price — that markets were going to be constrained under the pandemic lockdowns,” said Mike Conroy, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “But the price was north of $4.50, which was a really good thing. It speaks to the resiliency and ingenuity of the fleet, developing nontraditional markets.”

The forecast for the king salmon run to the Sacramento River this season is 473,183 fish, topping the 379,600 prediction for 2019, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife data. Last year's banner season exceeded the predicted run, bringing in more than $16 million in landings and making it the second most lucrative season in two decades.

The average ex-vessel price in 2019 was $6.37 a pound for king salmon. After fishermen started the season selling their catch for $4.50 a pound, the price moved to $7.50, which likely resulted from a dearth of salmon after an early season pop in Monterey Bay.

“We got a good amount of fish in the beginning with boats bringing in around 75 to 100 fish,” said Alan Lovewell, who owns Real Good Fish, a community supported fishery based in Moss Landing on the Monterey Bay. The season opened south of Pigeon Point on May 1 and expanded to Point Arena north of San Francisco on May 6. Both areas closed May 12, before opening for three weeks May 18.

“It’s slow now, the biggest numbers here today were around 10 fish, a lot of guys just had two fish,” Lovewell said on May 19. “There’s a lot of season left, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

But as any fisherman knows, moods change quick when fish start showing up. The early-season fish have been spotty and not running in schools, said Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Community Fishing Association. The salmon fishery in California is by and large a small boat fishery, so when the weather comes up, boats stay tied up or close to shore.

California restaurants also are expected to reopen as covid-19 lockdowns ease. And with it, demand will likely increase, Conroy said. Traditionally, restaurant sales absorb 65 to 80 percent of state’s salmon harvest.
“A week from now we could have more salmon than we know what to do with,” Collins said with a chuckle. “I could be working 36 hours a day hoping things will let up.”

Nick Rahaim is a writer and commercial fisherman based in Monterey, Calif. Check out his website, outside-in.org, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @nrahaim.

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