Heads up, salmon lovers: Epic catch brings tons of fresh fish to the Central Coast

Salmon are running in epic numbers this year off the Central Coast, and that means lots of fresh fish for commercial fishermen and hungry customers.

This year’s salmon season, which started commercially on May 1, is the best local fishermen have seen in 20 years.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates an increase of more than 150,000 Chinook salmon in California coastal waters this year compared to last, originating from Sacramento River fall-run stocks, many of which have made their way to the Morro Bay coast.

Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley in Morro Bay, is unloading thousands of pounds of fresh-caught salmon daily from local and out-of-the-area boats, citing a 15,000-pound distribution on Tuesday alone.

“It’s like Christmas for us,” DeGarimore said. “This is the biggest salmon catch we’ve had in the past two decades. We’re all really excited to see the boats coming in. Tourists are taking photos. Salmon are beautiful fish, and they make spectacular fillets.

“It’s a fun time around here.”

Lots of fresh salmon for sale

The Tribune observed one commercial fishing boat, the Gladnik out of Crescent City, unload 414 salmon at DeGarimore’s dock, amounting to more than 4,000 pounds. The company Caito Fisheries hauled off bins of ice-packed fish for delivery to San Francisco.

Nearby, customers of Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley, located on the Embarcadero, found fillets of salmon on sale at $29.99 per pound, though prices range between $20 and $30 per pound, DeGarimore said.

Salmon are packed in ice for shipping at Giovanni’s Fish Market dock in Morro Bay. Nick Wilson nwilson@thetribunenews.com

Fishermen get paid about $7 per pound, and DeGarimore has seen local boats making as much as $5,000 a day off their catches, often taking in about $30,000 over a five-day outing.

Jeremiah O’Brien of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization said boats are coming to the waters off the Central Coast from as far away as Oregon. He said it’s the best fishing he has seen in 19 years.

“The season is closed for three days, and when it opens next week, I expect there will be many more boats here,” O’Brien said.

The commercial salmon season runs through July 31 along the California coast from Monterey to the Mexican border, with some short breaks during that time, including the three-day closure from Saturday through Tuesday. It resumes on Wednesday.

DeGarimore said the current run along the Central Coast is bringing heavier fish than those caught in Northern California.

“Our average here is about an 11-pound fish, while up in the Bay it’s about 7 pounds,” DeGarimore said. “We’re seeing fatter fish here compared to what they’re getting up there.”

Giovanni’s also has an online commerce service and ships orders of fresh salmon every day to states across the country.

Salmon buzz hits sport fishers

Local sport fishermen are also hooking into the salmon bonanza.

The fish are typically caught between 200 to 300 feet, said Bruce Harwood, general manager of Virg’s Landing, a tackle shop and charter fishing business.

“I’ve been selling a lot of salmon lures, barbless hooks and other tackle,” Harwood said. “We really focus on rockfish, and so we’re not taking people out to catch salmon. But we’re selling a lot of equipment to private boaters.”

Jose Salazer fillets a fresh salmon at Giovanni’s Fish Market in Morro Bay. The fish produced seven pounds of meat for sale. Nick Wilson nwilson@thetribunenews.com

Harwood called it a “banner year” for salmon fishing, one in which he hopes will also bring albacore, or longfin tuna, later this season. Albacore is found in in temperate, tropical waters worldwide.

“The most asked question I get is, ‘How’s it looking for albacore?’” Harwood said. “It will depend on ocean conditions. ... They’re such a good fighting fish.”

Brent Lintler, who operates the Port San Luis Boatyard and Sport Launch, said it’s the “best year I’ve seen” for salmon. He said 45 boats caught 79 salmon on May 25, a busy day for private boaters.

Salmon data shows spike from Sacramento run

The reasons for the increased salmon catches include successful survivals of fish raised in hatcheries in Northern California rivers, which have contributed to more prevalent salmon populations off the California coast.

About 379,600 adult Chinook salmon are estimated to be inhabiting California ocean waters from the Sacramento River fall-run, a main salmon stock harvested in California waters, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The Sacramento salmon estimate last year was 229,400, according to Barry Miller, an environmental scientist with Fish and Wildlife.

Fishermen unload salmon in Morro Bay with a view of the Rock in the background. Nick Wilson nwilson@thetribunenews.com

That estimate takes into consideration a number of factors, including fish survival rates and spawning data.

“A lot of those fish (in the Sacramento fall run) survived to make it out into the ocean,” Miller said. “This is a healthy year.”

Miller said that when the adult salmon enter the ocean from the Sacramento River near the Golden Gate bridge, they “either turn left or right.”

Miller said it’s clear that many of the salmon traveled south this year. Food sources and water temperatures also are likely factors as to where the salmon run, Miller said. Typically, after three years at sea, salmon return to their spawning site to die.

“There are definitely a lot being caught in pretty big numbers down there (along the Central Coast), though they’re also being caught in San Francisco,” Miller said. “Food has to be part of that. Ocean temperatures have to be part of that.

“None of those things are the sole reason, though.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.