Boots planted on the floor of his boat in Monterey Harbor, Bryan Lucas hoists his only catch of the day: a sparkling 17-pound Chinook salmon caught May 17 off Pebble Beach.
“The fish have been real spread out, so it’s kind of been hit and miss,” he says. “If you get into them, you catch pretty well. But right now there’s not a lot of fish in the bay.”
Lucas, who’s been commercially fishing Monterey Bay for almost three decades, isn’t complaining too much. Weather and ocean conditions that change by the day make patience a virtue of his industry. The great news, for him, is the $8 per pound he’s been getting off the dock from his buyers.
“The price is high,” he says, “and I think everybody’s having a pretty decent May.”
Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer remembers about 15 years ago, when local salmon was fetching less than $1 per pound off the boat. Now fishermen are reporting dock prices of $7.50-$9.50 per pound – almost twice last year’s.
“The price we have now is the best I’ve heard forever,” Scheiblauer says.
That means steep retail prices, like $22 per pound from Monterey Bay Fish Company on Monterey’s commercial wharf, and $23 a pound from H&H Fresh Fish Company at the Monterey Peninsula College farmers market.
Locavore salmon lovers have another option, short of reeling in Chinook themselves: Buy it directly from a fisherman. They’re allowed to sell off their boats with a special permit, but only by the whole fish. A 15-pounder at $8 per pound runs $120, but a customer handy with a fillet knife gets more than double the flesh compared to retail.
Local Catch Monterey Bay, a community-supported fishery for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, recently brought local Chinook to its members. Alan Lovewell, the CSF’s manager and cofounder, says it’s rare to find fishermen selling off the boat in Monterey and Moss Landing, but it’s fairly common in Santa Cruz Harbor.
Despite the high prices, Scheiblauer says, the 2013 commercial salmon season, which opened May 1, has been off to a slow-to-moderate start. He says the wind has been blowing from all directions, scattering the schools, and cold ocean temperatures are driving away sardines, a favorite salmon snack.
“There’s been much more of a bite, as I understand it, up by Half Moon Bay,” he says. “The fish just haven’t been around.”
But Scheiblauer thinks it’s likely high demand, and not low supply, driving up the prices. The local abundance of krill is coloring the meat a desirable reddish-pink, adding value, he says.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife won’t have salmon catch data for the public until next month, according to Marine Communications Coordinator Carrie Wilson.
Lucas says he’s had more luck fishing at Soquel Hole, where the shore drops abruptly into the marine canyon and salmon appear to be feeding at greater depths. “When they’re deep,” he says, “that means they’re probably going to be sticking around.”
The salmon season is open now through June 8, June 21-30, July 15-Aug. 29 and Sept. 1-30. Monterey Bay salmon can be found at local fish and farmers markets.