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Larry Collins leaned against the cabin wall of his boat and considered the rain beating down on the docks of Fisherman’s Wharf. He took a long drag on a home-rolled Bugler and let out a sigh.
“You know, I really care about these fish,” he said looking out at the teetering fleet. “I’ve raised two kids, bought a house -- this is my third salmon boat.”
Collins has called himself a fisherman for 30 years. He ticks off the glory years when he’d pull into the docks hauling enough salmon to keep himself in a comfortable living. Back then he’d crab just to pay the taxes on the salmon. Now, he survives on the crab.
But for the last two years, Collins and every other commercial fisherman along the West Coast has spent salmon season on the docks. Record low returns of salmon on the Sacramento River system have forced regulators to cancel the season for the first time in history.
“Without being able to fish salmon you feel kind of worthless,” said Collins. “You’re not able to be who you are.”
But for the first time in two years, commercial salmon fishermen like Collins may be allowed to go back to work. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises the federal government on fisheries, is considering three options for the coming salmon season.
One option would close the season for a third year. The other two would allow fisherman to fish on a limited basis.
But Collins said the plan doesn’t make sense. Last year, fishery managers estimated 39,000 salmon returned on the Sacramento river system – the lowest number ever recorded. By comparison, 800,000 salmon returned to the same system in 2002.
That’s put fishermen like Collins in a strange dilemma. ”I don’t want to be the guy who catches the last California king salmon,” he said. “But if I’m told I’m allowed to go fishing, I’m a fisherman and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Biologists predict 245,000 salmon will return to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems this year, far more than the last three years.
But fishermen are worried the biologists numbers could be off and a season of fishing could devastate the already low salmon stock.
“It’s good to go fishing, but with returns like that, I don’t see how they can justify that,” said fisherman Tim Calvert.”That’s like saying there’s ten buffalo, go out and kill nine of them.”
The Pacific Fishery Management Council will pick a final option at its meeting in Portland, Oregon in early April. Federal regulators will make a final decision based on the council’s recommendation.
Collins said as much as he’d like to fish, the option of fishing this year has left him feeling torn.
“We want to do the right thing, we want to do the responsible thing,” he said. “But we need to make a living.”