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Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival a bright spot after bad news for salmon fleet

The community of Bodega Bay will come together this weekend to host the town’s 45th Fisherman’s Festival, an annual celebration of the seafaring traditions that have sustained and shaped life in the coastal hamlet for a century.

The two-day fundraiser has its origins in the start of salmon season and includes a formal Blessing of the Fleet — acknowledgment of salmon’s central role in the local culture as well as the perils inherent in fishing.

But this year, amid a decline in the salmon fishery that has pushed the beginning of the North Coast season into July, economic risks are what dominate conversation around the marinas.

“It’s a tough season for everybody,” Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg said. “It’s been a tough season for all of us for the last few years.”

Dates adopted this week for this year’s sport and commercial salmon seasons are not quite as bad as last year’s but represent a fraction of what once was considered “a regular season.”

The commercial season, which traditionally started in April and, later, May, has been slashed by more than half, according to the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Sport fishermen can fish earlier on the North Coast, from June 17 through Oct. 31. But they have about a third less time than usual, though there has been a high degree of variability in both sport and commercial seasons over the past decade or more, including two years in which there was no salmon fishing allowed at all.

Even given fishery managers’ poor predictions for this year’s salmon runs, local commercial fishermen “are kind of bummed,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association.

Most of the local fleet finished months ago trapping Dungeness crab, the North Coast’s other key commodity, and many had hoped for a little more time on the water in search of salmon.

As it stands, commercial fishermen will be idled until July 26 along the North Coast. Commercial trollers are allowed to fish from San Mateo County to Humboldt County the last six days of July, most of August and all of September.

Those willing to travel toward Monterey or farther south can pick up a week in May and 12 days in June. There are also highly restrictive “quota” fisheries here and there up north.

So it is possible to patch together a more complete season, though it means travel for little return with the added risk of making the trip only to face poor weather, Ogg said.

It also means more time away from home and family, Edwards said, but “sometimes that’s what you gotta do.”

The season outlines are determined in large part by salmon population projections that this year are below minimum levels for the third consecutive year, requiring fishery managers to develop a recovery plan for several stocks, including the Sacramento River run, which supplies a large proportion of the fish caught along the North Coast.

The decline in population has decimated a fishery that in 2013 brought salmon valued $23.6 million into California ports, compared with $4.9 million last year. In weight, the drop went from 3.8 million pounds in 2013 to 0.5 million pounds in 2017.

But many fishermen and surveyors as well observed high numbers of 2-year-old fish in the ocean last year that they hope means a larger number of mature fish are out in the water waiting to be caught than formal forecasts suggest.

“We all think that there’s going to be a lot more fish than they predicted,” said Humboldt County veteran fisherman Dave Bitts.

Bodega Bay Chamber of Commerce President Patty Ginochio said the impact of the prolonged time lag begin crab and salmon fishing already is visible in the number of deckhands turning to a food pantry hosted by Waves of Compassion, a nonprofit she co-founded last year.

A committee chair for the Fisherman’s Festival, she also noted that the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, which each year receives a cut of the festival proceeds, hopes to use this year’s grant to help struggling members cover the costs of mandatory safety equipment.

Ogg said it costs almost $1,000 just to have a life raft repacked each year, as required for U.S. Coast Guard certification. New signal flares and fire extinguishers have to be rotated in at regular intervals, and survival suits have to be maintained and inspected, as well.

“It’s for our own good,” Ogg said. But it’s costly and just one of the many expenses fishermen face, so “some of the guys, because they can’t afford it, they just don’t do it.”

Organizers are hoping to raise $100,000 with this year’s festival, which typically benefits more than 20 local nonprofits, including school groups, fire agencies, the Bodega Bay Grange and other community organizations, festival Chairman Josh Perucchi said.