Bay Area commercial fishers struggling under weight of recent catch restrictions

Bay Area commercial fishers say they are facing unprecedented financial hardships this year after dealing with a range of restrictions on several of their key catches. 

"I’m struggling to pay my bills. I’m definitely going to be in the red this year," said William "Captain Smitty" Smith, who has commercially fished and run charters out of Half Moon Bay since 1985. 

Smith says he has been hit hard by the State’s decision to cancel salmon season off the coast for the first time in 14 years. 

"My overall business for the year, is down 90 percent," said Smith.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife nixed the season to give the State's salmon population time to recover after being impacted by the recent drought. Boat captains at Johnson Pier in Half Moon Bay say they’d been hoping the season would just be shortened.   

"The salmon is one of the major mainstays of this whole harbor. If you look across, every boat is here, every boat is tied up. These guys have got mortgages to pay, got bills to pay," said Smith.

Another hit to their bottom line came after the State decided to shorten Dungeness crab season this year, due to whales in the area. And just last month, the State moved to restrict the harvesting of nearshore rockfish. 

"With losing salmon, and the nearshore rockfish season, it’s pretty much total devastation," said Rick Powers, a charter operator in Bodega Bay, who also heads the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association. 

"The lack of opportunities is something that we haven’t experienced in years," added Powers. "You know the investment to get into a business like this, and own a large boat, it’s costly, and you have to have some income, so it’s not looking good at least for this season, and next season looks pretty bleak also." 

Meantime, Smith said he's hoping state regulators will rethink how and why they implement certain restrictions, pointing to the nearshore rockfish ban as an example.

"They’ve closed our season up here because of a fish that we rarely every catch," said Smith. "The fish is called a quillback, and if we catch – out of the harbor, the whole fleet here -- if we catch five a year, that’s saying a lot."  

As for Powers, he's hoping federal aid is on the way.

"We’re hoping that there’s some relief through the federal government," said Powers.

"Otherwise you’re going to be putting all of us out of business," said Smith. "We’re all teetering on the edge, and I know of at least one person who just walked away from his boat."

The next big opportunity for some boat captains to make money will come in November, when Dungeness crab season is expected to re-open.