2011-06-06 "Enormous sturgeon crowding into San Pablo Bay" by Alastair Bland from "Marin Independent Journal" newspaper
A large, unusual concentration of big sturgeon in San Pablo Bay has scientists baffled and local fishermen thrilled.
Thousands of the lumbering bottom-feeding fish seem to be gathered in the waters between the Carquinez Strait and the Tiburon Peninsula. Sport anglers, who generally are accustomed to long and tedious hours of fishing to catch just one sturgeon, are deeming 2011 one of the best fishing years in history.
But just why the white sturgeon -- whose smaller and rarer cousin, the green sturgeon, is a threatened species -- are swarming in San Pablo Bay more than elsewhere is uncertain. The season's intense precipitation almost certainly has something to do with the phenomenon. Fishermen generally associate heavy rainfall with increased sturgeon activity. Some anglers say the influx of fresh water into the bay stimulates the fish's appetite.
Keith Fraser, a veteran fisherman and owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop in San Rafael, speculates that the season's first big downpours "pushed" the sturgeon from higher in the estuary into San Pablo Bay.
"In November, the (sturgeon) fishing was hot up around Pittsburg and Antioch," Fraser said. "Then the rain started, and the fish all came down into our lap."
Scientists, though, are dubious. According to state Department of Fish and Game biologist Marty Gingras, the expected response to high rainfall of sturgeon is to move upriver. High river flows, he explains, can trigger sturgeon spawning activity, which takes place between December and June in the Sacramento River.
Indeed, decades' worth of data collected by the department show that years of high rainfall are often followed by an abundance of baby sturgeon.
Another biologist, Michael Thomas at UC Davis, was surprised to hear of the fast fishing action downstream of the Delta. "We'd expect the fish to go upstream when it rains this much," Thomas said.
He has a hypothesis, though: "It's possible that the high river flows in the winter caused the fish to spawn early, and if that's the case, then what we're seeing is a large congregation of post-spawn fish in San Pablo Bay."
Whatever the explanation, local fishermen know one thing: The slow and sluggish pastime of catching sturgeon has become one of the fastest games in town.
"The sturgeon fishing now is as good as I've ever seen it," said Jim Cox, a San Rafael sport-fishing captain and operator of the boat Touch of Gray. Cox has been fishing in the Bay Area for three decades.
Spurts of good sturgeon fishing arrive periodically but 2011, he said, tops any year he can remember. He has landed keeper-sized sturgeon on nine consecutive outings this spring -- a remarkable streak by sturgeon fishing standards.
A fellow San Rafael party boat captain, Gordon Hough, took 10 clients fishing last month on his boat, the Morning Star, and the group caught -- and mostly released -- 20 fish in an exceptional fishing outing.
Also remarkable for this year is the large size of the fish being caught. Fairfax fisherman Rico Petri, who said sturgeon fishing is usually "really boring," has caught and released 20 sturgeon since November and said 10 were longer than the 5.5-foot maximum size limit. One, Petri said, was 7.5 feet long. Multiple 8-foot fish have been caught, released and reported to bait shops. Fraser tells of a 9-footer.
But the biggest of all was caught near China Camp State Park on March 29. The fish was reeled in by a San Francisco man who estimated the fish at more than 12 feet long and roughly 1,000 pounds.
California's official state record for white sturgeon is a 468-pounder caught in 1983, a decade before a maximum size limit made keeping such giants illegal. But the largest sturgeon ever known in state waters may have been a 1,500-pound white hauled from the Sacramento River by a team of horses in the 1880s. The 16-foot-long fish reportedly inhaled a rabbit used as bait on a meat hook. Even bigger fish have come from the waters of the Columbia River system.
Around the turn of the last century, a short-lived commercial industry devastated California's white sturgeon population. The commercial fishery was shut down and has never reopened.
But sport fishing has always been tightly restricted. By state law, anglers can only keep one white sturgeon per day and three per year. A fish must measure 46 to 66 inches long if it is to be kept -- a "slot limit" system that theoretically gives lifelong protection to large fish, though sturgeon poachers regularly violate the law.
Despite careful fishery management, the annual sturgeon catch is declining. According to Department of Fish and Game records, Bay Area party boat captains, who must report all sturgeon kept to officials, took an average of 1,900 fish per year from 1966 to 1970, 525 from 1976 to 1980, and 500 from 1986 to 1990. Since 2000, party boat skippers have reported just 240 sturgeon per year. In 2009, their collective tally came to 175 fish -- the second-lowest ever recorded.
Lack of fishing effort may be a factor, Cox said. But Cox warned that the state's white sturgeon population has "definitely dropped," and he blames environmental degradation in the Delta and Sacramento River.
Sean Daugherty, a San Rafael fisherman, believes enforced fishing restrictions could make sturgeon fishing a sustainable recreation.
"People are catching a lot (of sturgeon) this year, but the slot limits should protect the big ones indefinitely," he said.