As I coiled rope on the deck of a commercial fishing boat in the western Gulf of Alaska, I felt the sudden thud of a revolver reverberate in my chest. I wheeled around as a crewmate fired more bullets; a round of buckshot followed, from a shotgun held by my captain. I’d known their anger was growing as sperm whales ate our catch but hadn’t expected they would vent their frustrations with live ammunition. I looked out and saw a sperm whale crest the surface for air around 20 meters away, seemingly unfazed by the heavy fire.

It was early spring 2013, and I was sore, exhausted, and cold. After working 20 hours a day for more than a week, my crewmates and I still owed the boat money because sperm whales had dined on nearly all the sablefish hanging from our hooks as we burned fuel and ate food—both of which came out of our pay. We were using longline gear, essentially a kilometers-long rope with baited hooks spaced at intervals, and all that we pulled from the depths were bent hooks and the occasional disembodied sablefish head.

In videos taken by researchers over the years, the whales are surprisingly graceful—giants weighing 15 to 40 tonnes gently biting half-a-meter-long sablefish off the hooks. Sometimes sperm whales will rake the rope as it’s being hauled in, letting the hooks run over their lower teeth, with the fish popping off upon contact. Other times, the whales will grab a taut rope in their mouth and pluck it like a guitar string, whipping fish off the hooks from the vibration.

Fatigue and financial loss made me indifferent to the agile intelligence displayed below my feet, but seeing my coworkers shoot at the largest species of toothed whales on the planet—an illegal act that could lead to a steep fine and a year in jail in the United States—revolted me. Yet I knew my protests would be futile, and I was more than a day’s boat ride from the nearest port.

In the Gulf of Alaska, as well as in longline fisheries throughout the world from the Bering Sea to the Antarctic and tropical waters between, toothed whales—that is, any whale that feeds with teeth instead of baleen, such as sperm, pilot, and killer whales—are learning to see fishers and their gear as a source of an easy meal. Scientists researching this behavior, known as depredation, say whales are increasingly eating lucrative catches right off the hook instead of foraging naturally. There’s no easy way to stop it, and the behavior is spreading through whale culture. Whales’ penchant for hooked fish might be the biggest fisheries story that hardly anyone knows about.

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Manuel Ortiz held out his hands to the camera, revealing decades of toil — callouses, scars and creases embedded with soil that multiple hand washings wouldn’t scrub clean. Photographer David Bacon first saw him in 2015 as he pushed a shopping cart full of cans and bottles through an alley in Yakima, Washington. Ortiz first came to the United States in the 1950s under the Bracero program and continued working the agricultural fields of California and Washington for six decades.

But when he met Bacon, Ortiz was in his mid-80s and too old to work in fields, so he redeemed cans and bottles to cobble together enough money for rent and food. With a single photo in Bacon’s signature style — an uncropped black and white image set in a hard black border marking the edge of the full frame — he captured decades of hard labor that provided food for millions, but more importantly he reveals the continued strength Ortiz’s hands hold to survive in a society that had continually undervalued his work.

“It’s a powerful image,” said Roberto Trujillo, associate university librarian and director of Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections. “An elderly man’s hands, just his powerful hand, scarred and worn from working in the fields day in and day out for probably all his adult life.”

The photograph of Ortiz, entitled “The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work,” is one of 200,000 images spanning three decades shot by Bacon that are now housed in Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections, which acquired Bacon’s archive in the winter of 2019. The collection was launched this fall under the exhibit title Work & Social Justice: the David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford, after more than a year of cataloging the images, original film negatives, color transparencies and digital files.

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While the COVID-19 pandemic continues taking lives, the United States is opening its economy — California included. For those tired of the confines of their homes and local communities, businesses catering to leisure travel are opening. Here are two FAQ-style guides on how to travel safely in the time of COVID-19.

Remember, wear facial coverings, wash your hands and keep safe distances from people you encounter. Stay safe out there and travel wisely.

California hotels are starting to open up, but is it safe to stay in one during coronavirus?

As California counties progress through the state’s reopening plan, many are poised to begin receiving their first visitors since early March. And Californians, cooped up for three months of shelter-in-place, are looking to get out and vacation — if only for a few nights.

Hotels in many counties — San Diego, Napa and El Dorado, to name a few — are gearing up to open to outside visitors June 12 after having been limited to lodging essential workers. But the threat of COVID-19 has cast a shadow over the travel and hospitality industry, which thrive on serving visitors in high volume. Read more…

Here’s everything you need to know about road tripping in California this summer

Hitting the open road is as appealing as ever as summer greets Californians who have spent months sheltering in place.

Even as many health authorities remain apprehensive about spikes in COVID-19 cases, many counties around the state have taken major strides to reopen this month, opening the door to summertime visitors. Read more…

A narrow strip of US Route 1 brings millions of tourists a year to the steep chaparral flanks of the Santa Lucia Range of Big Sur, on the rugged central California coast. Head east into the mountainous Ventana Wilderness, however, and there are few roads and almost no development. On this remote terrain, five California condor chicks were getting ready to fledge in the October sunshine.

These six-month-old condors mark an important milestone for the species. Just 28 years ago, California condors were extinct in the wild. Now, with these five chicks, their population in central California has ticked above 100. Throughout the southwest United States, their total wild population is well over 300 and still increasing.

In the coming months, the Ventana Wildlife Society, which co-manages the central California condors with Pinnacles National Park, plans to release six more captive-bred condors, says Kelly Sorenson, the society’s executive director. The park also plans to release two, pushing the regional population to 111.

“To have more than a 10 percent increase in condor population in one year is just amazing,” Sorenson says. “The story of the condor is a hopeful one and shows we can make a difference if we work at it.”

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I stood on the deck of a fishing boat this past summer, soaked from sweating inside my rain gear after an hour of picking sockeye salmon from our gill net at the mouth of the Nushagak River on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Fishing is hard enough work, but an early July heatwave sizzled the region, making for grueling conditions on deck. The temperature in southwest Alaska pushed 32 °C. Smoke blowing in from wildfires burning hundreds of kilometers east blotted out the mountains on the northern horizon. Nothing about the conditions was normal.

I’ve worked as both a journalist and a commercial fisherman for over a decade, participating in more than a dozen fisheries from Southern California to the western Gulf of Alaska. I’ve seen booms and busts over the years, and this summer the fishing in Bristol Bay was booming. Estimates say 56.3 million salmon returned to the bay’s rivers. While down from 2018’s record-breaking runs, with 62.3 million fish, Bristol Bay has so far bucked the trend of declining salmon runs seen in other regions. But all is not well. As I was sweating on deck, the water was 18.9 °C—just a few degrees shy of 21 °C, when the temperature starts being lethal to salmon.

Twenty-five kilometers northwest, in the nearby Igushik River, the water was even warmer. One hundred thousand sockeye salmon waited for cooler conditions so they could move upstream to spawn. But, unwilling to pass through the hot, shallow water, the fish used up the available oxygen and suffocated—it was the largest sockeye salmon die-off seen in Bristol Bay, says Timothy Sands, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elsewhere in the watershed, temperatures also soared. Read more…

From 10,000 feet, Salinas resembles an uncut diamond in the middle of a patchwork quilt of lettuce fields. To journalist and author Claudia Meléndez Salinas, it says a lot about her adopted home: With the right perspective, Salinas holds gems that otherwise remain obscured.

“Salinas might not always seem pretty in the traditional sense,” Meléndez Salinas says while sitting at the Cherry Bean, a coffee shop in Oldtown Salinas. “But the history, hard work and resolve of the people, especially the Latino community, has made for a place with a strong cultural identity.”

The city of 160,000 is often overlooked by people who come to Monterey County to visit Cannery Row and the aquarium, the pastoral Carmel Valley and rugged, world-famous Big Sur. It’s widely known as the childhood home of and inspiration to Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, as the source of most of the nation’s lettuce and leafy greens, and as a city long plagued by issues related to poverty.

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In the June 23, 2019 travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle I took readers from tide pools to rocky reefs 30 feet below the ocean surface to show how they can witness the effects of climate change on the Northern California coast. For the first article I followed world-class free diver and spearfisherman Greg Fonts underwater to see how sub-tidal ecosystems have changed after kelp forests shrunk by 90 percent in less than a decade. In the second, I explored tide pools off Bodega Bay with UC Davis marine ecologist Eric Sanford to observe intertidal creatures who have moved north to the Sonoma Coast as the ocean has warmed.

Also in the section, I profiled the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s top diver George Z. Peterson and got his top-five scuba diving spots in California. If these stories interest you then check out my article on abalone diving I wrote while a staff writer at The Press Democrat in 2017.

Without abalone, spearfishing hooks North Coast anglers
On a cool, overcast day in May, spearfisherman Greg Fonts floats facedown on the surface of the Pacific Ocean 300 yards off the coast of Fort Bragg, rocking in the swell in a thick wetsuit. A small dive flashlight dangles from his right wrist. His left hand holds a long speargun, an arrow-tipped steel bolt locked in place along the stock with thick rubber tubing.

Through his dive mask, Fonts spots a school of blue rockfish swimming over the rocky reef 20 feet below — a good sign that lingcod may be nearby. With large fang-like teeth, lingcod are marine predators prized for their large fillets of mild, flakey meat. After a deep inhale, Fonts removes his snorkel and duck-dives. With a few kicks of his long flippers, he descends to the reef. Read more…

How is climate change affecting oceans? Check the tide pools
On a sunny afternoon in mid-April, Professor Eric Sanford crouched in a tide pool off Bodega Bay and turned over algae-covered rocks in search of a chocolate porcelain crab, a dime-size crustacean with blue speckles.

The creature has been spotted in small numbers around Bodega Bay for decades. But five years ago a severe marine heat wave, dubbed “the blob,” caused a sharp increase in its numbers north of the Golden Gate, says Sanford, a marine ecologist who researches climate change and coastal ecosystems at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab. Read more…

5 best scuba diving spots in California, from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s dive director
George Z. Peterson’s job as director of dive programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is — in his words — quite simple: “I’m there to get people stoked on the ocean.” No day is the same, says the 49-year-old Peterson, who has worked at the aquarium since 2003. He has brought more than 41,000 kids underwater through the aquarium’s youth dive program, keeps the glass of the massive tanks clean and sea creatures fed with help of more than 100 volunteer divers, and coordinates dives and safety procedures for the aquarium’s 50-plus scientists and research staff who dive for their work. Read more…

 

A Dungeness crab on deck. Photo by Nick Rahaim.

The worst-case scenario has been averted — no multiyear closure of California’s Dungeness crab fishery. But fishermen will feel the sting for years to come after a settlement in a lawsuit over whale and sea turtle entanglements has closed spring crabbing in the state for the foreseeable future. And the fishermen are not happy.

“The settlement is going to be extremely painful and extremely difficult to deal with,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, noting that millions of dollars in product will be left in the water this year. “But this was the best possible deal that was acceptable to all parties.”

At issue is a 2017 lawsuit in federal court by the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Biological Diversity that argued the state of California was in violation of the Endangered Species Act after a three-year spike in whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear from 2014 to 2017.

The lawsuit sought to force the state of California to obtain a federal incidental take permit for whales and turtles — a process that takes around three years to implement. It would have been possible for the fishery to remain closed during the intervening years, although the CBD says it never sought an indefinite closure through litigation.

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I’m happy to have been able to contribute to the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust’s recent newsletter on the important, yet all-too-often overlooked, contributions women have made throughout the history of Monterey Bay’s commercial fisheries. I also dive into why the term “fisherman” is still used when so many women fish and gendered terms are being taken out of common language.

The hidden history of women in Monterey Bay fisheries
Women have always played pivotal roles in the success of the commercial fishing industry, whether as cannery workers, fish cutters, biologists or business managers. Yet, their work has often been overlooked. To remedy this, we’ve taken a deep dive into the work of women in Monterey Bay fisheries, going back more than a century. And while there’s presently still work to be done before achieving gender equality on the water, supporting women within commercial fishing is easier than you might think. Read more…

Why do we still use the word “fisherman?”
There was a time in this country when women were largely excluded from working on boats and catching fish as their occupation. For generations, only men worked as fishermen. But times have changed and there are now more women on the water than ever, so why do we still use the term “fisherman” to describe the men and women who harvest fish?  We asked women who fish and write for a living what their preferred terms are. The answers may — or may not —surprise you. Read more…