Chasing the King

matt juanes of the fishing boat la plumeria holding a halibut
Matt Juanes of La Plumeria with a 5 pound halibut.

California king salmon season has been canceled entirely this year, and from the docks to the tables, we’ll be missing the king this spring.


San Franciscans eagerly anticipate the return of the king, when salmon flips across menus in the spring. The commercial season usually opens in May and runs through October, welcoming in warmer days and fattening up for summer. Wild king salmon reigns as the most prized catch of the year, for its deep red color and marbled fat, resulting in exceptionally rich flavor and texture. It’s a luxury to stick a fork into those succulent flakes, whether lightly poached with grassy asparagus, sliced up raw for crudo with buttery avocado and bright citrus, or smoked out on the grill until crispy skinned. 

But not this year. By the time you’re reading this issue, it should be official: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to cancel the commercial king salmon season for 2023, because they can’t count enough fish in the sea. That’s due to drought, as well as dams and diversions limiting the little water left. As Edible SF has covered for years (see The Future of Salmon: Can They Be Saved by Molly Gore, 2017 and Sea Change by Becky Duffett, 2020), salmon is a contentious political issue in California, where water from the Sacramento River gets diverted to the Central Valley — salmon competes with big agriculture for survival. “This is a direct reflection on California’s water policy and an absolutely devastating blow,” Scott Artis of the Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA) wrote in a statement. 

Drought might sound counterintuitive given all the winter rain, but remember salmon have a three-year lifecycle, so the drought and resulting wildfires of 2020 took a long-term toll. For the Sacramento River, scientists are forecasting 170,000 adults will return this year, and for the Klamath River, 104,000 adults. The only worse year on record was 2009, making this the second time in state history that the season has been canceled entirely. 

“I’m used to a struggle. I’m used to a fight,” says captain Matt Juanes of the FV Plumeria. “I know it’s going to be really tough this year.” He’s called the Port of San Francisco home for a dozen years now. Like many small and local fishermen, Juanes catches the classic combo of king salmon in summer and Dungeness crab in winter. He estimates two-thirds of his annual income comes from king. Dungeness tends to get more hype during the holidays, but he describes crab season like a piñata, with a big dump for the first couple of weeks, followed by a smaller trickle over a few months. In contrast, salmon runs longer and it’s enduringly popular. 

Juanes is still figuring out what to catch, instead. He hauled crab a little longer than usual, until that season ended on April 15. It was already a rough crab season, with a late start and early ending to protect migrating whales, and punishing winter storms sometimes keeping him off the water. Now he’s considering catching black cod, rock cod, lingcod, and halibut, and maybe even rock crab and coonstripe shrimp, which he says make a surprisingly sweet snack. In addition to wholesaling to distributors, he’ll try to sell small quantities directly to customers. Anyone who’s been buying fresh crab off the boat might recognize him, and he’ll continue docking behind Scoma’s, so long as there’s an appetite. 

tom worthington of montery fish co. with a chili pepper rockfish
Tom Worthington of Monterey Fish Co. with a chili pepper rockfish.

“The fishermen are taking this in the teeth,” says Tom Worthington of Monterey Fish. “And then all the people who sell the fish are taking it in the teeth. And at the end of the day, the end user also is going to pay a price for this.” Worthington has weathered the fish business for 40 years, as a distributor wholesaling to restaurants across San Francisco. At their unloading facility on Pier 45, he expects to lose two-thirds of their usual business, echoing the exact same percentage. “It’s a big hit financially,” he confirms. 

The GSSA values the California king salmon industry at $1.4 billion. When an entire industry shuts down, there might be federal disaster relief, and officials like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Governor Gavin Newsom have joined the fishing community in calling for aid. But in Worthington’s experience, Monterey Fish and other local businesses might not see that money for years. 

Monterey Fish will still sell salmon, but it’ll come from further north and be more expensive. The Oregon season will likely be canceled as well, across most of the coastline (from Cape Falcon to the California border). So salmon will come from Washington and Alaska, and Worthington sees numbers dwindling. Right now he’s only getting “a fistful” of salmon from Alaska, priced at $12 per pound for wholesale, which could look like $50 entrees. For restaurants, he’ll recommend local rock cod, Petrale sole, sand dabs, and squid. FFor home cooks, he expects they’ll grab farmed Atlantic salmon, steelhead, and trout. 

With so many farmed and frozen options on grocery shelves, he worries that disappearing king might be an invisible issue for everyday shoppers. “You’ve lost something,” Worthington says. “And you don’t even know that you’ve lost it.” 

nico pena of octavia restaurant with black cod cioppino
Nico Pena, chef at Octavia, with Black Cod “Cioppino.”

 Monterey Fish immediately emailed their chefs the bad news, but the only reply has been a silence of despair. “I’m for sure devastated,” says chef Nico Pena of Octavia. “For me king salmon is the pinnacle fish of this area. It’s one of those products that make the Bay Area so unique.” He’s developed an internal timer, and much of his spring menu revolves around salmon. Pena is into whole animal cooking, so when he pulls in a big king, he breaks it down into five or six different dishes. 

He likes to lightly cure and smoke the fatty bellies, dice them up with equally buttery avocados, and scatter with fresh horseradish and Meyer lemon zest. He scrapes the bones to make salmon mousse and pipe it into fresh tortellone, mounted with green garlic butter, and tumbled with smoked roe. And while he loves crispy salmon skin, these days he prefers to defy expectations: He fries the skin and crushes it into a seasoning with dehydrated citrus and salt. Then poaches the filet with peas and chanterelles, and dusts the salmon salt back over, to deepen the omega-rich flavor. 

Although it wouldn’t matter. Any king salmon dish will sell out. “People will order salmon any which way,” Pena says. “Any time I’ve ever run salmon on the menu, it’s like okay, get ready to sell a lot of that.”   

He already had a cold-smoked crudo on the Mother’s Day menu, which he’s now scratching out. Octavia takes pride in sourcing from local farms, ranches, and fishermen, so Pena refuses to serve salmon from Alaska. “It would be like buying asparagus from Mexico, you know?” He actually loves delicate and tender Petrale sole on the bone, but he braces for picky diners to whine about bones. “There’s always next year,” the chef says, clearly still bummed. 

The silver lining with the winter rain is king salmon should come back, but it will take several years. Salmon need plenty of water to swim upstream to spawn, and specifically cold water for the eggs to survive. The eggs have a nice brisk outlook, but we won’t see those adults for three years, so “it’s a big waiting game,” Worthington sighs. Still, he respects the decision to cancel the season. There’s no one more invested in protecting wild fish than the people who love it. “There’s a giant mixed feeling,” Worthington says. “There’s a responsibility to the species itself and not wanting to lose that species in the background. That would be the last thing that anyone would want.” 

Juanes wholeheartedly agrees, and says most fishermen feel the same. Yet he still misses the thrill of the chase. Juanes used to be an appliance repairman, and speaking personally, he didn’t ditch his land job to bottom fish. Ironically, king takes him the furthest from his family for months on end, chasing up and down Northern Californian from Cape Mendocino to Morro Bay. “All of a sudden you get a phone call that they’re biting, and that’s your big paycheck,” he says. “Your heart starts racing. Everyone’s racing to their boats, trying to throw groceries on, and get ready to go. You pull your gear and go, go, go. 

“My heart starts fluttering just hearing about a bite. I stay up all night. That’s the exciting part of salmon.”