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Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 028: Gone Fishing

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week, I go into search of salmon in the Pacific on board the fishing boat, Tuna Palooza, with fishermen, Mark Gorelnik and John McManus. Salmon are facing incredible odds, traveling from the inland birthplace to the open ocean, where they mature for several years before making the perilous journey back home to spawn at the end of their lives. The salmon we're looking for have a lifecycle that's been shaped for millennia by California's rivers. Healthy rivers determine when the fish spawn, when the eggs hatch, how fast the young grow, and how many survive their migration to the ocean. These amazing fish are the apex predator of California's rivers. Like the wolf and the grizzly, if salmon runs are healthy, it tells you a great deal about the health of the ecosystem they rely on. Dams, agriculture, and politics are all major threats to this iconic fish. The majority of California Chinook salmon originate in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. More than 70 percent of their original spawning habitat in central California has been destroyed. Dams did the most damage, drying up riverbeds and cutting off access to mountain spawning streams. On the Telomere river, which starts in Yosemite National Park and supplies water to San Francisco, an average of 80 percent of natural flows that diverted in the key spring months. Salmon need water and they need it to be cold. Fifty years ago, salmon in California Central Valley River, in the low numbered in the millions. In 2008, scientists counted only 66,000 returning adults salmons in the Sacramento River and for the first time, officially canceled all ocean salmon fishing off California, and most of Oregon. With drought for the last six years, salmon numbers are still extremely low. After shrimp and canned tuna, salmon is the third most popular seafood in the United States. About 600 million pounds are consumed annually. California fishermen bring in just a fraction of this total, about 5 million pounds of salmon in a good year, which we haven't seen in many years.  The vast majority of salmon in grocery stores come from fish farms in the Atlantic. At the dock, I meet John McManus who is a fisherman and the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon, fishermen, businesses, restaurants, tribes, environmentalist, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. The captain is Mark Gorelnik who is the chair of the Coast Side Fishing Club, a community of recreational fisherman. Mark’s also the vice chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing quotas along the west coast for a 119 species of fish, including salmon ground fish like halibut, costal pelagic species like sardines and highly migratory species like tuna and swordfish. As you can hear, we’re already underway. Mark, where are we going today? 


MARK GORELNIK: We are going up the coast to a place called Duxbury Reef, which is off of Bolinas, California.


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, John, why are we going to Duxbury Reef?

JOHN MCMANUS: We're going to intercept one of the greatest migrations on the west coast of North America that happens every year. When the southern-most population of king salmon return to the central valley where they were born to spawn, reproduce, they will die. Their carcasses will fertilize the central valley, their offspring will come out next spring, and then we'll see them come back three years later, and it's a cycle of nature that's really a wondrous thing if you live in northern California. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: John, when did you start salmon fishing in these waters? 

JOHN MCMANUS: I didn't actually start fishing salmon out here until the mid-nineties when I bought a boat. Prior to that, I'd been a commercial fisherman in Alaska and we'd use quarter mile long purse signs to catch them in mass. Coming out here with a hook and line was a whole other experience. But salmon's a great food and it's not only a great food, it actually creates community. You bring a big salmon home, it’s way more than a single family can eat. You start sharing with neighbors and friends, and pretty soon you're a local hero. If you get a really big fish and you share with greater than just your city block, it's possible you can achieve legend status, and that's a level up from hero status. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What kind of boat are we in? 

MARK GORELNIK: This is a 25-foot power boat, diesel-powered, manufactured by Davis Boats in Paso Robles, California. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And how long have you had it? 

MARK GORELNIK: I've had this boat since August of 2006, and it has fished salmon every year, except for the closures of 2008 and 2009. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So why would the fisheries close in those years? 

MARK GORELNIK: The fisheries were closed because the population of Sacramento Fall Chinook collapsed down to roughly 40,000 adults, and so the fishery managers decided it was not worth the risk. It could not afford to lose any fish into the fishery harvest. So, the seasons were closed. There were also highly restricted for years past that. And we're in a restricted year this year because of a lack of abundance of fish. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There's the Steelhead, the Chinook, the King salmon. Like explain this, all these different names. Are they different things or the same thing? 

MARK GORELNIK: Well, King and Chinook salmon are the same. For some reason, salmon have different names depending upon what's used in the local area. The same is true of Coho Salmon, which are also referred to as silver salmon. These are the two species of salmon we see here in California. The Coho Salmon is listed as endangered and therefore there's no retention of silver salmon or Coho salmon in California. We are allowed, however, to retain Chinook Salmon. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So that's what we're going after today? 

MARK GORELNIK: That's correct. 

JOHN MCMANUS: Mark is an actual voting member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. So, he was involved in making the decisions as to how the seasons are set, how much time an area we're allowed to fish in order to make sure we protect the stocks. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So how long have you been on the council, Mark? 

MARK GORELNIK: I'm beginning my third year on the council and now also serve as vice chair of the council. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, do scientists come before you each here and kind of lay out the evidence and you know, do they give you kind of a range of caution? Like if we want to be super cautious, take this path if you know, how do they make, how do they help you make your decisions?

MARK GORELNIK: Well, the council has what's referred to as the salmon technical team. The members of the salmon technical team are biologists from Washington, Oregon, and California departments of Fish and Wildlife. Every year they calculate the forecast, the abundance of the various stocks that salmon along the coast, and based on that abundance, an allowable harvest figure is reached, and then the seasons are crafted around the allowable harvest. This year, for example, the allowable harvest was in the neighborhood of approximately 80,000 fish and that must be shared between the sport fishery, both inland and on the ocean and the commercial fishery in California, Oregon, Washington. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: John was talking at the beginning about how they spawn in the rivers along the coast, the coastal rivers in California, Oregon, and Washington. 

MARK GORELNIK: They look at those rivers to count the number of returning fish in order to determine a empirically the following year’s abundance. There is a fishery management plan that requires at least 122,000 Sacramento Fall Chinook to return to the river and the stock has failed to reach that objective for three consecutive years. So now, according to the fishery management plan, we need to develop a rebuilding plan. The rebuilding plan will address, not only harvest issues over which the council has the control, but will also address environmental conditions, the lack of water or the temperature of water. These fish require cold water to spawn and for the spawn to survive, and they require sufficient outflows for the small baby fish to escape the rivers and back into the ocean. And during the drought, for several consecutive years, we failed to have either proper temperature or proper flows or both. And that is why the forecast stock abundance this year, the Sacramento Fall Chinook is only 230,000 fish, whereas it should be, I would think, in proper environmental conditions, over a million fish. 

JOHN MCMANUS: We're up near beach right now. There's an anchovy live bait boat in there. He's a purse signer and he's looking to purse sign up big schools of the anchovies to take them in and sell them as bait. I just want to mark that as we go by. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Is there any correlation between anchovy populations and salmon.

JOHN MCMANUS: The anchovies and sardines and krill and squid are all the forage that the salmon need in the ocean. In times of good ocean conditions, you have abundance of one or more of those stocks and the salmon fare well. Back in 2014 and 15 and 16, we did not see a lot of those forage fish out here. The population is on the rebound, and while it's been a rather windy year, it's been not been so good for being on a boat on the ocean, those northwest winds and the upwelling that results is what really gets the food chain supercharged. And I think we're in for a good year in terms of forage fish and that's good for salmon. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Mark, salmon in the Sacramento sounds like even if this is a good here, the trend is still worrying. 

MARK GORELNIK: Well, the trend is worrying because the problems we're seeing inland, there are solutions that are known, but there are forces, political forces that resist those solutions. And the solutions largely revolve around the flow of water. As has been said in the west, a whiskey is for drinking and water's for fighting over. And the large and successful agricultural industry in California has a rather healthy thirst for water. If one drives through the state, you regularly see thousands of acres of newly planted permanent crops while those almond trees can't live on air alone, they need water, but salmon need water too. So, the demands by the agricultural industry have increased. And because they seem to have greater political sway, we're not seeing enough water. We're not seeing enough protection of salmon, and that's why we've seen the depressed numbers in large part. Now the drought would have reduced the abundance in any event, but water policies have really aggravated that to the point where we've seen the last few years relatively low abundances of salmon returning to the valley. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Big Ag seemed to not be that friendly towards fish. Why is it that? 

JOHN MCMANUS: Not all ag is equal. Our biggest problem has to do with moving massive volumes of water that originated in northern California to the western San Joaquin Desert. And I'm talking about the San Joaquin Valley west of I -5, which as I understand it, on average, gets less than eight inches of rainfall a year, which qualifies it as a desert. I guess back in the sixties, people who own land down there or speculated on land succeeded in convincing politicians at that time to build a pipe into the central valley water project, which is the federal water project, and they were able to start diverting water into the western San Joaquin Valley. They've been taking water ever since. It was granted with the original understanding that they would take water in times of surplus. So, in really wet years, they could plant an annual crop like tomatoes or cotton, get water, and make some money. In dry years, they would simply fallow their land. That was the original idea. And what was, I think presented to the public at the time when the system was set up. More recently, they've torn out the tomatoes and the cotton, and they've replaced it with almonds. Almonds want a gallon of water for every single nut produced.

JARED BLUMENFELD: That’s a lot of water. 

JOHN MCMANUS: It's a tremendous amount of water. Where's it going to come from? It's going to come from the part of the state that has water, which was the northern part, which was a salmon stronghold originally. But actually, there were quite a few salmon historically in the San Joaquin system too, but they were basically killed off for the most part with the construction of the Friant dam back in the 1940’s. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Most of the almonds aren’t consumed even in the United States. A lot of these almonds are exported around the world to China and Japan and Korea, and so we're not growing the almonds for us. 

JOHN MCMANUS: We're basically taking California water that historically raised really rich nutritious salmon crops that fertilize entire central valley. We're converting that water into almonds and putting it on giant containerized cargo ships in the port of Oakland, shipping it to China and the other places you mentioned. The wealth that accrues from that basically ends up in the hands of very few, very big growers. So, we're seeing a massive transfer of natural wealth of this state from the north to a handful of people who by and large live in gated communities in the city of Fresno.            


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you go to a supermarket, the salmon's coming from pens in Scotland, in Canada, in Alaska, in Norway. We are now growing salmon in these crazy pens, feeding full of antibiotics and all kinds of crap. What is the difference between wild salmon and farm salmon? 

JOHN MCMANUS: You know, one thing I would say to any consumer is, look at the label at the supermarkets because the farm salmon will have a color added notice on the label. And that's pretty important to see. What you need to know about buying farmed salmon is there's a tremendous amount of pollution that's generated with raising these fish and it's basically externalized. That is, the salmon farmers don't capture that pollution and pay the cost to treat it. They dump it into the environment where it harms wild salmon and other wildlife. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, is there a label or something that people can just get? How would they know that it’s wild caught? 

JOHN MCMANUS: It will not have the color added on it and actually almost every place that sells wild caught makes it a point to put a label saying it's wild caught because people know that's really what you want. It's chemical free. It was raised in nature, sustainably raised. It's a far superior product, tastes way better. It's better for you. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I’m a salmon addict. I love Salmon. Wild Salmon is anywhere from $22 to $24 a pound. It's not inexpensive. 

JOHN MCMANUS: Yeah, it would be really good if King Salmon were cheaper. I will say this. There's a large production of wild sockeye salmon and wild Coho salmon out of Alaska and you'll see that product end up in Trader Joe's and Costco and that's really good stuff and that's more in the $9 a pound range, so there is pretty good wild salmon that's available. It is true though, that King Salmon, which is the best flavor, best tasting, is pretty expensive stuff. Unless you're lucky and you get it at the peak of the season when there's quite a bit that comes on the market, the price will drop for a few weeks. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It does seem like more and more people in for health reasons are eating wild salmon though.

JOHN MCMANUS: Captain Jackie Douglas who runs the Wacky Jackie Charter fishing boat out of San Francisco is turning 90 in September. She still run on the boat. She claims that she is able to run the boat and has strength and energy because she's been eating salmon all of her life. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, John, you run the Golden Gate Salmon Association.


JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about that. 

JOHN MCMANUS: Our mission basically is to restore stocks of salmon in California’s Central Valley. The reason why is, the vast majority of the fish that are out here off the California coast originate the Central Valley. By and large, the ocean is doing its part still to support those salmon runs. The problem is a freshwater habitat that Mark mentioned earlier in the Central Valley. So, what you see is a couple of years after we get really wet winters, like in 2017 especially, you're going to get a good return of salmon. What ends up happening is Mother Nature basically overwhelms the negative effects of our damning and diverting of water in the Central Valley and we get a temporary reprieve and, well, we get reminded of what natural conditions could look like when we get a whole bunch of water. And we see a reflection two years later out in the ocean with big peaks, big jumps in salmon numbers. And it's really all about fresh water runoff and flow in the central valley.   


JARED BLUMENFELD: When you go to Sacramento, or go and talk to our nation's capital and talk to people like Secretary Zinkie, are they sympathetic? At the Sacramento legislators, do they understand the importance of what you're talking about? 


JOHN MCMANUS: Well, he is clearly a beholding to his supporters who come from the Western San Joaquin Valley. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's shocking.

JOHN MCMANUS: Newsflash. So, all of his actions appear geared towards moving the remainder of northern California's water down to the small handful of growers who operate in the Western San Joaquin Valley. That's basically where the support for the administration right now comes from. This is corruption, pretty blatant. Anybody who's been watching closely can see exactly what's happening here. We've got a lot of good legislators here in California who also see what's going on and they're not happy with it. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In the water column, on the depth gauge, so it’s 71 feet. What's the red? 

MARK GORELNIK: This is bait and more than likely anchovies that we're seeing on the fish finder. We're going very quickly over them since we're running at about 20 knots. But, you've got a much better view when we slow down to the trolling speed, which is about two and a half knots. We will get a much clearer view of the bait beneath us. We are off of Salinas. We have Bolinas Bay, which most, probably would recognize the name Stinson Beach, and the village of Bolinas. 

JOHN MCMANUS: Yes. That's where we are.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Stinson Beach is just kind of like the Malibu of northern California. 

JOHN MCMANUS: It is a bit. I don't travel in that crowd, so I don't know much about it. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Like a gated community called Sea Drift and each house is like $20,000,000. 

JOHN MCMANUS: We have secrets coming up. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I don't think there's a large overlap between Podship Earth listeners and people with boats that go salmon fishing off Duxbury Point. But maybe there is. 

JOHN MCMANUS: Well, so, I will spill the beans here. First of all, every day is different. So, what worked yesterday may not work today, but I can tell you we're going to start, in roughly 60 feet of water and we're going to put our baits down approximately 20 feet and then we'll go from there. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: What kind of bait are we using today? 


JOHN MCMANUS: We're using frozen anchovies. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay. There's a lot of anchovies in the water or something on the fish finder, a large column there. 


JOHN MCMANUS: Yeah. Yeah. And when you, uh, as they fly, fishermen say you need to match the hatch, so you want to use the same kind of bait that the salmon are naturally feeding on. And right now, they're naturally feeding on anchovies in the water. So, we're going to use anchovies as bait. 


MARK GORELNIK: There's a rock sand interface. We're going to be near an edge. And we might find some salmon hanging around that edge where the rock reef turns into sand bottom. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Like every time I come out here, I feel like a little kid. I get so excited. Do you still get excited all these years into it?


MARK GORELNIK: You know, I think we've got the hunter gatherer thing program hardwired into our DNA and there's an element of that in fishing. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Why else would grown men get up at five in the morning to get food for the family? My family is relying on me. How many boats are around us right now, John?


JOHN MCMANUS: There are probably 50 boats around us. They range in value anywhere from about a $20,000 boat up to about a $300,000 boat. And on some of these bigger boats, the party boats, there's probably 20 paying passengers right now. So, there's quite a bit of economic activity right around us right this minute. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: It's good to use it as economic activity. I just see it as competition. 


MARK GORELNIK: Just so you know, this is a really bad place to stand because if I need to run in and out. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, that's exactly where I was standing. 

JOHN MCMANUS: And you'll notice there's quite an assortment of colors. It's like these fish have a thing for disco or something, I don't know, but they like this colorful stuff. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you put those and frozen anchovies? Both of them go on. 


JOHN MCMANUS: Yeah. Uh, I got to make up some anchovy baits here. I’ve got two frozen ones, so give me just a sec to get some gear out. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Mark, did you just deploy those? 


MARK GORELNIK: Yeah, these are drag shoots. Unfortunately, this boat, the diesel motor trolls a little bit too fast at idle. So, these drag chutes slow us down to about two and a half knots.


JARED BLUMENFELD: I just got a bite! It’s awesome. It's incredible. It's like a 20-pound salmon. That it's so cool. Okay, we're going to put the fish on ice, turn off the engine and just float. There are lot of birds around us.


JOHN MCMANUS: Yeah. The birds have figured out there’s a big school of anchovies here. That's a male. He's calling out to his chick. The fathers take care of the chicks here. They got separated somehow in the midst of all this feeding frenzy. So, you'll hear the birds talking to each other, trying to get located again. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we're here in beautiful, stunning day. Very, very peaceful. Like I have a question. So, as a sport fisherman, do you feel like you’re also an environmentalist? 


JOHN MCMANUS: Oh yeah, absolutely. The fishermen I know are the most concerned about the resources and the most active at preserving the resource and making sure that the habitat for the salmon is preserved and restored. I mean we had 150 years to tear the Central Valley to pieces, putting up dykes and levees everywhere and rerouting the river and putting in gigantic boulders along the riverbanks. And so, now's the time to put some of it back the way it was. Most of our members actually spent a tremendous amount of time outdoors and they see this with their own eyes. They're really close to it. They see how the natural systems work. They see the animals and the birds, and they see the different seasons in California. They live close to the elements. So, they're very well aware. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: It seems like we've kind of lost touch with the land, the ocean, the nature that we're protecting. But fisherman, like just spending the day out here today kind of reconnects you to what we're here to save. 


JOHN MCMANUS: I can't stress enough the value of buying a boat. In fact, we ought to move our office out here. We could just float around out here …in an Octopus’s Garden. Throughout human history, except, since the industrial revolution, human contact with nature a was required. It was always there. And as we become increasingly urbanized and more technological, we've become more remote from the natural environment. And I think that being out here on the water and the wild or going backpacking in the mountains, it reconnects you with that natural environment. You know, fishermen have been conservationists for a long, long time, long before a Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in the modern environmental movement. It's really at our core to remind people that most recreational fishermen are not terribly adept. And so, we need an abundant and healthy resource for us to enjoy our pastime. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: That's great. I like that. Yeah. If someone's coming to the west coast, how do they find a good fishing boat to go out on as recreational fishes? 


JOHN MCMANUS: There are a number of commercial party boats, they're called, that will take you. You buy a ticket and you go on. It's an open party boat. These boats are in the port of Sausalito, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Francisco, at Fisherman's Wharf and search for salmon fishing in San Francisco. They'll get plenty of alternatives. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: And talk about the economics, like how, how big a deal is this fishery recreational fishing in the United States? 


JOHN MCMANUS: It’s a multi-billion dollar business, if you will. Because while we think of it in terms of recreation, it generates a lot of revenue for businesses, and there's a lot of economic multiplication as it ripples through. So, there's boats, there's fuel, there's food, there's bait, there's tackle, it goes on and on. And I think that the federal government has increasingly recognizing the economic significance of the sport fishing industry. Commercial fishing is also very important, but these days, sport fishing industry in the United States is economically more significant than the domestic production of seafood in the commercial fishing fleet. And actually, much of our fish that we see in the market and especially shellfish is a foreign source.


JARED BLUMENFELD: When you look at surveys of people in sport, like the number one sport in the United States is fishing. 


JOHN MCMANUS: You know, it's something that's accessible to most, most everyone, most of us live near. If we're not near the ocean, we're near a lake or a river. And it's something that, especially kids, you can get equipped for it for probably mere dollars. And it's something I think all of us grew up doing something very simple, fishing off a trout pond or off a pier or the coast. That's certainly what I did growing up in southern California, fishing off Santa Monica pier or Malibu pier. It was a simple pastime that sort of kept you out of trouble. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Cool. Let's get underway. Thanks to John McManus and Mark Gorelnik for taking me fishing and educating us about the fight to protect California Salmon. I returned home, fileted the fish, lit the barbecue, and managed to feed 28 happy artists and have enough left over for a delicious salmon salad. It was without a doubt the best salmon I've tasted in years. And just like John predicted, I was a local hero. The state of California is getting ready to set standards of how much water is needed to protect salmon within specific river systems. This week, farmers and cities are angry with a proposal that they'll only be able to take 60 percent of all the water flowing into the San Joaquin river during the spring months. They want to be able to take a lot more so that they can continue to ship almonds to China and use drinking water to flush toilets. Salmon fishermen and the fishing economy depend on healthy rivers for their livelihoods. A decade ago, the salmon industry was worth 1.4 billion a year and 23,000 jobs. A restored fishery would be with far more. We need to band together to fight for salmon restoration because if the salmon go, we won't be far behind them. Next week, I attempt to bike the 77 miles around Lake Tahoe and on the route seek to discover how community groups are keeping these unique Alpine lakes so clear. Please like Podship Earth on Facebook. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, happy fishing. And don't forget to only buy wild salmon.

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