Vineyards of Salmon
A fish tale about survival
Somewhere in a narrow band between 25 and 50 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, just offshore from the countercultural community of Bolinas, California, there lurks a predator more efficient than a nuclear submarine, with a GPS-like homing system more sophisticated and precise than the most accurate and expensive drones employed by the CIA.
But despite all its biotechnical attributes, the Pacific salmon is struggling to survive, primarily because not enough people even know it’s there.
Victor Gonella is not one of those people. Victor Gonella is alone on his boat, somewhere outside the Golden Gate, contemplating the end of another salmon season. He is thinking about big fish and paradoxically, vineyards. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there’s a connection. At least if you’re Victor Gonella, and you have an almost spiritual attachment to the almost mystical fish.
“To me, every time I catch a salmon is like the first time. It has never waned. The amazement of it all, how they show up on the marine coast after these long trips to Santa Barbara and out into the ocean—they show up three years later as these big, beautiful pieces of silver and gold. It just always captures me.”
Gonella, a Petaluma auto dealer who does a lot of fishing (or, as he might put it, a Petaluma fisherman who also sells some cars) is talking about Chinook salmon, largest of the species and the only salmon that can be legally taken from Northern California waters today. Coho—or silver salmon—though once abundant, have declined to the point they are now fully protected from capture, and their populations remain at risk.
There may be a link between their loss and those vineyards, too. We’ll get back
to that in a moment. Right now Gonella has a fish story he can’t not tell, a fish story that puts saving salmon in a very personal perspective.
“It was my last trip of the year for salmon. I went by myself, and at first I wasn’t going to go—fishing has been kind of slow, the season’s winding down. I was all by myself on the north bar. I knew that the tide was coming in. It had been slow and if any fish were going to come, they would stop up there on the high tide on that north bar. I know the tides very well from 50 years of doing this.
“Anyway, I’m on this north bar and I catch a small salmon, he’s about 12 pounds. I’m very happy because I have something for dinner and it’s the last day of my season. I’m thinking to myself, “The season’s over, and I’m all by myself,” and then pretty soon there’s about 30 boats around me because the party boats and others know that, at this time of the tide, this is kind of where you want to be when fishing’s really slow, because this is your best chance.
“I see just the slightest tick in my line, and I think, hmm, and I walk from the back to the rod and WHAP, the thing goes down. I hit this fish and I could tell immediately, this is a really strong fish. There’s boats all around me, and I’m by myself.
“Luckily, I’m on autopilot, and I do this thing where I tie a string around the throttle and I bring it all the way back over the rocket-launchers, so that I can kick the boat into neutral at the last second, because you can’t get to the helm with a fish on. I’m fighting this fish, and just by chance, not on purpose, but the boats kind of move out of my way and this fish and I drift about four miles off. We’re all by ourselves out in the ocean. Four miles away from anybody. This tug-of-war goes on for about 45 minutes and I look down, I’ve had this fish close to the boat about five times, I could almost touch him. I see I’ve got him just barely on with a barbless hook, and I can see that the slightest pull will just tear him right through. It’s this slight pull and take, pull and take, and I’m thinking, ‘OK. This fish is an amazing fish, with some of the best colors I’ve ever seen on a salmon. My personal opinion is, it’s a native fish. Because it has tremendous coloring and spots to it that I never quite have seen so pronounced.’
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, you’ve been fishing for these things for 50 freaking years. Don’t make a mistake,’ because the slightest mistake here, this fish is gone. It’s just gone. The slightest mistake. The blink of an eye, he’s gone, because he’s just so barely hooked, it’s a miracle I’ve got him this long. I have to continue to tell myself, ‘Fifty years, you’ve been doing this, 50 years. Calm down.’
“That just shows you, though, that after 50 years, my heart is still pounding over this thing. It’s so cool, because we’ve been pulled out into the shipping channel all by ourselves, and it’s just this fish and me. Literally, like ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ I’m almost 60 and this tug-of-war is going back and forth, back and forth. I start thinking, ‘This fish won’t tire. The longer he’s in the water the advantage is actually going to him, not me. I’ve got to get him out of the water.’ Because that hole in his lip is probably getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And I’m alone, no one to handle the net.
“And then I’m thinking that with this water flow, being in gear is reviving him to some extent. If I shut that boat into neutral, I give him some advantage of not being pulled, and he can get in the engine, and he get in the front of the boat. I finally decide I have to put it into neutral because the advantage is going the wrong way; I’m not gaining any ground on this fish. I reach up and, literally, the string is right here, I pull it into neutral, only I pull too hard and it goes into reverse.
“I think to myself, ‘There’s the mistake! There’s the one mistake you made!’ Luckily for me, when I put the boat in neutral, I threw the neck down, and it moved the boat back into him, and he slammed forward and the boat was in neutral and [clap] right in the net he went. Holy shit!
“I pulled him up and weighed him—28 pounds. Not the biggest by any means, but the most beautiful. I looked down at this thing, and I said, ‘God bless you, you are the last fish for me this year, and I’m going to be eating you all winter long.’
“I’m still smiling. It was just amazing, the boat in autopilot pulling us way out there all by ourselves, me pulling the string through neutral into reverse by mistake, and I just shoved the net down and he went in. Amazing. I just sat there for about 10 minutes. And I said, ‘This is why I live here. This why it’s so important for people to know these fish are here.’
Weeks earlier, four of us are in Victor’s boat, doing a slow troll south of Bolinas, watching the bait clumps on the sonar screen, looking for promising patches of ocean where the big fish will feed, and the conversation turns to saving salmon.
Because Victor Gonella owns car dealerships and races cars, he is not an inactive guy and it is not in his genes to stand by idly and watch a world and a way of life he loves fall progressively apart. So when salmon numbers finally plunged so far, across the board, that federal authorities closed the entire fishing season two years ago, he was moved to act.
“We knew there was a bunch of good people doing stuff in their dens at night. Alone. No Secretary, no funding, just writing their Congressmen or their Representatives or writing articles for ‘Western Outdoor News’ and plugging away the best they could. Almost none of them really even communicated.
“I said, ‘This has got to stop. We need one unified voice. We need a bigger voice.’ So we went about finding the best people who had been doing the best work and soliciting them onto a board, which we ended up calling the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
Victor pauses as he guides the boat over a promising patch of bait fish.
“GGSA came to be,” he insists, from crisis, from having no season. What’s been real interesting is it was really easy to build, and it was really easy to gain funding and attention when there was no salmon season. People, unfortunately, get what I call ‘wheel-house vision.’ They only see as far as the bow of their boat. ‘We’re catching fish now,’ they say, ‘we don’t need GGSA anymore.’ When really, the real battle has only just begun.”
Gonella and his new group are determined to build a coalition of salmon supporters strong enough, and loud enough, to be heard in the halls of Congress, in Sacramento, wherever policy is made that impacts the habitat and sustainability
The perpetual threat to the fishery is inadequate freshwater flow in salmon spawning streams, degraded water quality and structural obstacles like dams.
These issues have been debated and addressed for decades, but for most of that time there has not been a single unified voice speaking for salmon.
Gonella gets visibly angry when he wonders why the public simply doesn’t understand the real value of the iconic fish.
“This is the first time for the final wake-up call, when we learn that this could actually be over forever. But when we’re searching all over the world for good food sources, why ruin this one? I don’t get it. You’re putting local folks to work, you’re supporting local coastal communities that would die otherwise. You’re providing the best food possible; it’s been tested relatively mercury-free. It’s still a very good product in an area in which almost everything is contaminated. It’s amazing that these fish come back very high up on the FDA list of what you should eat. Why wouldn’t we want to save them?”
So now Gonella is working to load his big gun. “We have our Salmon Declaration, and now we want 250,000 signatures from people just saying, ‘I believe in salmon. I think salmon ought to be part of our environment.’ That’s all it says. ‘I believe in the salmon industry.’ It doesn’t ask for money, it doesn’t ask you to go carry a sign, it just says, ‘I believe.’ What that does for us, it builds one, big friggin’ army. I think if you walk in, and you can say, ‘I’ve got half a million people I am representing,’ then you get heard, then people listen.”
But what’s all this got to do with vineyards?
It is one of the unique features of California Wine Country that you can be fishing for salmon offshore in the morning and get back to dry land in time for a full afternoon of winetasting. What you probably won’t know is that some of the fertile fields in which many premium grapevines grow adjoin rivers and streams the watersheds of which were historically nourished by the decomposing bodies of millions upon millions of spawned-out salmon. Research is beginning to reveal what an important nutrient load those salmon carcasses bestowed upon the land.
That’s the first half of the salmon cycle. The second, less satisfying half of the story, is that the explosive growth of those very vineyards has resulted in the depletion of water tables and the widespread reduction of stream flows spawning salmon require to survive.
There are countless battlegrounds in the campaign to save salmon, but one of the best places to take a stand is on a boat like Victor Gonella’s with a 20-pound king at the end of the line. Once you share that connection, chances are you will want to experience it again. And that will require a healthy fishery. Just ask Victor.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA