Bags of fish fillet are piled into four giant cooler boxes on the back of a truck in the Berkeley Marina, where Yvette Hudson and her assistant sort them into 10 ice baskets. These baskets of fish will go into Hudson’s stall at the El Cerrito Farmers Market. Before she finishes setting up the stand, consumers have already lined up outside, hoping for fresh salmon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of stories about the Berkeley Marina written by UC Berkeley Journalism Graduate students in partnership with Berkeleyside.
It’s a Saturday in September and Hudson can expect to sell all her fish, as she does three times a week. It’s good money, but it isn’t enough, and by the end of the year she and her husband, Mike, will be quitting the commercial fishing business after 25 years.
The Hudsons’ boat, the 40-foot Cash Flo II, is the only remaining full-time commercial salmon fishing operation berthed at the marina. Their business has no middlemen: Mike Hudson catches the fish himself and his wife sells them directly to consumers at Berkeley and El Cerrito farmers markets.
Commercial fishermen in California are scrambling to stay in business and remain productive. High operating costs and low supplies make it harder and harder to rely on fishing as a viable source of income. Over the past two decades, more than half of the commercial salmon fishermen in California have left the industry, according to a review of 2020 salmon fisheries from the Pacific Fishery Management Council. And the Hudsons will soon join them.
“It is a terrible season for me this year,” said Mike Hudson, who is 57. He started sport fishing in Europe as a little boy. After coming to the Bay Area, he would go out to the ocean and fish with his wife. “We were spending more time fishing than going to work, and it wasn’t very good for our financial situation,” Hudson said, laughing.
They have enjoyed the life. They started with a small boat; then they got a bigger one; finally, in 1994, after a series of conversations with fishermen in Half Moon Bay, they bought a commercial fishing boat, gave up their day jobs and went into business. “We were really, really poor for the first two or three years, until we learned how to do it right,” Hudson said. All the hustle-and-bustle seemed to be worth it. “Over the last 20-something years, we paid for our house with fish; we paid for the boat with fish. We never got rich out of it, but it’s a comfortable life.”
But now, Hudson is unable to catch enough salmon to meet the thriving demand. “The number of fish is just not there,” he said. In the past, he could average 20 to 30 fish per day, and if he was lucky as many as 150 in a single day. But this year, he is satisfied if he comes back with 30 fish after a four-day voyage.
Meanwhile, his costs have grown. For each fishing trip, he needs to earn at least $2,000 to break even, and the number continues to go up as the price of fuel surges. Unlike most fishermen who sell to a distributor, he sells directly to consumers. That means that on top of paying for the fishing operation itself, Hudson must cover the costs of storing and maintaining his catch. “We rent a commercial kitchen to filet the fish,” Hudson said. Then those bags of fish will go in the cooler overnight before they land in the farmers market the next morning.
The Hudsons are losing money from fishing now. In a normal salmon season from May to October, he would fish three or four days per week and would not need other income sources. But this summer, he picked up his old job as an electrician. “The jobs I got on land pay me more than the money I made from fishing,” he said.
The unusual 2021 salmon season made fishing more difficult for commercial fishermen like Hudson. Earlier this year the Pacific Fishery Management Council cut fishermen’s time in the water by half in response to forecasts that the fall run of Chinook salmon in the Sacramento and Klamath rivers would be low. Fishermen in the San Francisco and Monterey area have had to adjust to an unprecedented “off-and-on season.” The goal of the season was to adjust the supply of salmon to the reduced demand triggered by the pandemic, which caused restaurants and other buyers to scale back. Not only did fishing start a month later than usual, but for the first three months of the season — from June to August — fishermen were told to stop fishing for two weeks after each two weeks on the water.
Normally, fishermen would go out in groups with their buddies to watch out for each other and would help each other keep an eye on the big schools of salmon. “That didn’t happen this year because nobody had time to scout for each other,” Yvette Hudson said, “and even if you spotted a good school of fish, you would lose track of them after two weeks of closure.”
The Hudsons’ experience might not be true of all local fishermen. “I am aware of some fishermen who had very good fishing this year. They caught many fish and the price was extremely high,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. Fishermen who ventured farther north to the Mendocino area were having a plentiful season this year, McManus said.
Mike Hudson lives not far from the Berkeley Marina, where he docks his boat. The salmon he seeks range widely, and fishing for them requires considerable travel from his base. “I’m kind of in the middle of where the salmon swim from Monterey Bay to Fort Bragg,” he said. At the beginning of the season, he headed to Santa Cruz where salmon cluster and kept his boat temporarily in Half Moon Bay.
The “on-and-off” season was particularly disruptive for Hudson, and he was hit harder by the fishing regulation than fishermen living farther south. It’s not unusual for changing conditions to affect different fishermen in different ways, said Dr. Carrie Pomeroy, a social scientist at UC Santa Cruz. “There is a lot of complexity under the surface in terms of individuals, their fishing operation, where they are based, and where the fish are,” Pomeroy said.
For Hudson, after starting off fishing for two weeks, he had to travel 15 hours to bring the boat home since it would be too expensive to berth in another marina for the two weeks he would be idle. His fishing operation paused and he needed to come up with a new plan for his accommodation, gear setup and fishing strategies.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of Chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento River has fluctuated, and federal and state regulators imposed restrictions to mitigate the population decline. “It’s like a bandage,” Hudson said. Water diversion and habitat loss continue to threaten the population of wild salmon migrating between freshwater and saltwater.
An even more serious problem is looming. This year’s heat wave and extended drought imperiled the Chinook population as warm rivers killed salmon eggs. “We expect heavy losses for natural spawned salmon,” McManus said, “and hatcheries will supply most of the fishes in the ocean in the next three years.”
But fishermen worry that there might be no salmon fishing in the coming year. Hudson still vividly remembers the last time the government shut down the salmon season in 2008 and 2009 and the economy of the entire coast suffered. “In the past, it was not uncommon for me to come home with 300 fishes or so after four days. These days don’t happen anymore,” he said.
Soon that may not be the Hudsons’ problem. They have listed information about their boat on some fishermen’s websites and Facebook pages. A couple of people have shown interest. “We’ll see how the sale of the boat goes,” Mike Hudson said, “I’m asking for a lot of money for this boat, and it’s really worth it.” He is making plans to work after retirement, but going back to fish will not be one of them.
Zhe Wu is a student in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley covering economic development.