Ask Lookout: Why are there so many boats in the water around the wharf right now?

A fishing boat with the lighthouse at Steamer Lane in the background
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Salmon fishermen are swimming downstream from northern California, Oregon, Washington and even Alaska to take advantage of king salmon in Monterey Bay. Most work so hard they sleep and eat on their boats to extend their days. What’s your question? Ask Lookout at news@lookoutlocal.com, and put Ask LO in the subject line.

QUESTION: I noticed that there are dozens of boats in Monterey Bay, especially around the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. It looks like there are a lot more than normal. What are they all doing here?

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They are commercial fishing boats here to fish for salmon. The season opened for commercial fishing May 1, but only south of Pigeon Point, which lies just north of Santa Cruz near Año Nuevo State Park. Some of them are local fishing boats, but many are commercial boats from areas where salmon season is still closed, including northern California, Oregon, Washington and even Alaska.

There isn’t enough room in the Santa Cruz Harbor for all of them, so the boats anchor in the calm waters off the wharf for the night or to wait to sell their catch in the harbor.

The season doesn’t open for the northern coast of California until July 8 — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife felt the need to protect the chinook salmon that spawn around the Klamath River and the Russian River for a while longer — so some boats could stay through the end of next month.

It’s unlikely you’ll run into them grabbing a margarita at Olita’s, though. “They pretty much sleep and eat on the boat,” said Britt Hoberg, the wharf supervisor. “They hit it so hard that they’re wiped out by the end of the day. It’s a tough life.”

Spring is also the ideal time to fish for squid, so Hoberg says it’s likely we will see the number of boats in the bay grow further when squid boats come to town. They’re easily identifiable from other commercial fishing boats because of the large light towers used to attract the nocturnal cephalopods.

It might look like a lot, but the number of boats out there right now is normal for the height of the salmon season, says Hans Haveman, owner of H&H Fresh Fish Co. in the Santa Cruz Harbor. The fish are clustered in areas near Santa Cruz, and while there’s considerable competition, he says everyone is doing well so far. The price of salmon is high, around $30 per pound for filet, Haveman reports.

One thing that could limit the availability of fish is the staggered dates for commercial fishing, enacted this year for the first time in order to protect delicate salmon populations from overfishing.

In May, the season was open for five days, then closed for the next five days, throughout the month. It’s open June 1-12, then closed for the rest of the month; open July 8-12 and 21-25, and Aug. 3-12.

Despite the “cut up” fishing days, Haveman said he believes there will be a good supply of fish through the season if they keep biting. The price for king salmon filet at H&H is $29 per pound, which is consistent with last year.

A fishing boat off the Santa Cruz wharf
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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