Water is the defining feature of the Delta, and recreation on the water -- fishing, windsurfing, water-skiing and boating -- is a big part of the economy and culture of this place. Today, though, a lot of businesses that cater to those recreational pursuits are struggling.
I come face to face with this reality one early Tuesday morning. At 7 a.m., a boat named Fishing Fool 4 pulls out of a private dock in the town of Isleton. It’s loaded with poles, bait and four avid fishermen. Its captain is Barry Canavero, who has run Fish Hookers Sport Fishing for 41 years.
We head down the Sacramento River, into the deep-water channel and under the Rio Vista Bridge, where big ships pass through to the port of Sacramento. We’re headed about 5 miles down the river, to fish for striped bass and sturgeon.
Today’s cold water makes fish less likely to bite, but Canavero uses a sonar device called a Fishfinder to find the most promising location. He lowers the anchor, and his deckhand (and son-in-law) digs bait out of an ice chest, cuts it, places it on hooks and then casts out five rods, which sit across the back end of the boat.
Then … we wait. Off the side of the boat, sturgeon jump, as if they’re taunting us.
Canavero explains, “This is a waiting game, it’s watching paint dry.” Passenger Jim Cox adds, “I describe it as hours of tedium broken up with moments of pure panic.”
At that moment, there’s a little tug on one of the rods and all four men jump up.
Canavero comes from a fishing family – his grandfather, originally from Italy, was a commercial fisherman in nearby Pittsburg before the salmon fishery dwindled in the 1950s.
“We’ve been in every part of fishing you can be in,” Canavero says. “We were manufacturers, we build and sold tackle. I’d go out commercially and get bait to sell to the bait shops. So there isn’t a part of fishing that I haven’t done.”
In terms of leading fishing trips, Canavero says he’s seen business go down, starting about 10 years ago, and really falling since the recession.
He speculates that people who are worried about money do less recreational fishing.
“We used to work every day," Canavero says. "Now, if we could do four days a week we’d be happy."
The recent findings of the state’s Delta Protection Commission seem to back up Canavero’s concerns. Even though the agency predicts the population of a dozen counties around the Delta will grow by as much as 50 percent in the next 40 years, growth in water recreation is not expected to keep pace.
“And then the fish are not there like they used to be,” says Canavero.
The conclusion of many studies -- and the opinion of the guys on this boat -- is that freshwater diversions from the Delta hurt fish. Farms and cities have been drawing water out of the rivers that feed the Delta for more than a century. Big dams went up in the early '50s, and pumps began shipping water south from the Delta. Canavero is worried that the proposal to build tunnels under the Delta could hurt the fish population even more. And local businesses -- from bait shops to early-morning diners and gas stations -- all depend on customers who fish.
Fishermen wait for bites onboard Barry Canavero's boat, "Fishing Fool IV."
About 12 miles away, Kande Korth is sitting outside at the Pirate’s Lair Marina, where the Mokelumne and San Joaquin rivers meet.
“It was a fisherman's paradise in the past, and there’s a lot less fish,” she says. “So, naturally, with less fish there's less fishermen.”
This land has been in her family a long time. Her great-grandfather, originally from Portugal, moved to the Delta after trying his hand at mining during the Gold Rush. In the 1930s her grandmother and grandfather decided to farm, and bought this undeveloped land at the end of the road.
“He started establishing himself here by bringing out oil and gas and hay, and when he returned the next day they were all stolen,” Korth says.
When it happened again, the story goes, her grandmother said, “All we’ve got is a pirate’s lair,” and the name stuck. Korth says this land was tough for her family to farm. They just happened into the boating industry.
“My grandmother personally had a small de-masted sailboat that she used to go out on the water herself,” which she would loan out for free to people looking to fish, Korth says. “Finally one day, one of the people insisted on paying her and pressed a silver dollar into her hands and a light bulb went off.” She convinced her husband to build more boats.
Today, the Korth family runs several marinas in the Delta serving people who love water recreation. People visit the cafe and gift shop in the summer, and store boats here year-round for water-skiing and fishing. In the summer, especially, boaters will get their boats and anchor out, or “hang on the hook,” just find a peaceful spot and spend a few days in nature.
However, Korth says business has been tough for marina owners lately. Her records show their gas sales went down 27 percent between 2007 and 2011, though they're starting to recover. Some people with smaller boats pulled them out of marina berths, storing them at home.
“We’ve had vacancy levels that I have personally never seen in my lifetime,” she says -- close to 25 percent at the worst of it.
So the Korth family offered discounts and promotions, cut back on some capital improvements, and added things like Wi-Fi to stay attractive. Her family is opposed to the tunnels. Even though the state’s plan includes water quality regulations, Korth is concerned that too much freshwater diversion will leave the water here too salty for the fish population. But she’s not trying to be possessive about the water that drains into the Delta
“I never really think about the water in the Delta as being that Delta's water,” she says. “It's the state's water. I understand that a certain amount can be diverted without catastrophic harm, but there is a pressure to continue to divert and possibly to divert more.”
Near the end of the fishing day, Capt. Barry Canavero shouts to the owner of a boat nearby, exchanging ideas about where fish might be biting. It’s a poignant reminder of how business has changed: That very boat was one of three Canavero used to own and operate his sportfishing business with. Now he has just this one.
Canavero leaves the Delta for a month or two each summer, leading fishing trips up the coast. People have paid Canavero to use his boat and expertise for other work. When prices for natural gas were higher, he’d take equipment and workers out to local gas fields. When the Antioch Bridge was under construction, he did the same there. I ask, with so many questions about the future of the Delta, what does he do to plan ahead?
He laughs and says, “Retire. I mean, what are you going to do?”
Canavero is over 70 and is hoping to cut back, but he’s worried about the future of business on the water.
“I live on the water and all my neighbors are on the water,” he says. “We’re pretty much connected to the water. I’m here because of the river. In my case, my family, I’m planning to retire. My son-in-law will take over. Is he going to have anything to take over? Is there anything left?"