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The accidental activist – fisherman fights against declining Pacific salmon population

By Jamie Hansen | 28 Nov 2010

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Mike Hudson

Fisherman and bluesman Mike Hudson's life took an unexpected turn towards activism when Pacific salmon populations plummeted in 2008. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

Mike Hudson never planned to spend years campaigning for a fish’s survival. Sure, as a kid he dreamed of becoming a commercial fisherman. But by the late eighties, he’d turned to a new dream: belting out tunes in a popular punk blues band. Yet at a crowded San Francisco bar one weekend night,  while performing onstage with John Lee Hooker’s bass player, a former Beastie Boy and a coterie of go-go dancers, Hudson did something that unexpectedly turned his life back toward fish… he met a woman.

When Yvette first heard Hudson’s voice, she was surprised. She had come with a friend to hear the band and was in the bathroom when the singing started. She thought,  “I don’t remember seeing an old black man in the band.” She emerged looking for the voice and found not an old bluesman, but a 25-year-old with a lingering accent from his childhood in Germany.  The two met at the bar over intermission, when Hudson stepped in to protect her from another customer who was hassling her.

A merchant marine known as Frenchie had taken exception to Yvette for no reason she can remember. What she does remember is how he removed a small knife from his pocket. He was making ominous gestures when Hudson appeared and said, “You need to put that away before you hurt yourself.” Then he offered to buy Yvette a drink, and she found she couldn’t resist: “At that point he really did sound like Arnold [Schwarzenegger].”

A couple years later, the two married – but they agree their relationship wasn’t the only thing that started that night. Yvette shared Hudson’s love of fishing, and before long they’d bought a boat. Soon the couple upgraded to a commercial vessel in what was “probably one wine-laden weekend.” They reflect on that purchase with bemusement. “Never make that stupid mistake,” said Hudson, smiling in a way that suggests he’s not at all sorry. “Before you know it, you’ve given up your career, and you’ve gone face forward into a new world, investing all your livelihood in it.”

Hudson began spending multiple days at sea. He’d roll out of bed as early as 3 a.m. to strike out from wherever he’d anchored the night before, striving for the best fishing spot. Armed with a cup of coffee, he’d check the oil, start the engine and “read the water.” Temperature, color, depth and the presence of birds all clued him in to where the salmon might be. Eventually, he’d stop at the spot where the fish seemed most likely bite, and he’d sink the hooks in the water. Then he’d finally stop for breakfast — oat bran or a baloney sandwich — and enjoy the view. “Having the ocean to yourself is better than any corner office you can think of,” he says.

Having found a hotspot and cast the lines, Hudson would turn on the blues he discovered as an American youth in Germany. That’s when the fish would really bite. “I don’t know what it is about Howlin’ Wolf,” says Hudson, “[but something] works down the fishing line to the hooks and drives those fish crazy.”

A weekend gig soon became a career, and the Hudsons’ driveway overflowed with fishing gear they had to explain to the neighbors. They gained a loyal following at local farmers’ markets.

But then the fish disappeared.

In 2008, the Bay Area’s biggest salmon population collapsed to a less than a tenth its 2002 size — a record low. To conserve the remaining salmon, fisheries shut down and remained closed in 2009 as the fish failed to rebound.  This year, the season opened — but for a mere eight days compared to the usual six-month season.  Hudson and about a thousand other small boat salmon fishermen struggled to find work.

The salmon crisis brought fishermen into an ongoing and heated battle for the Central Valley’s rivers. On the one side stood Central Valley irrigation districts and farmers and on the other, environmental organizations. Fishermen joined native tribes and environmental groups in claiming the Sacramento and San Joaquin river salmon declines were due, at least in part, to excessive damming and diverting for crops. Farmers, on the other hand, contended they needed the water to continue growing what many have described — controversially — as a quarter of nation’s food supply.

Since Congress voted in 1992 to allocate water away from agriculture to river restoration, many farmers have been on edge. Then, in 2007, a federal judge’s decision to uphold a mandate to reduce pumping of the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta further angered them. They launched a massive publicity campaign alleging that Congress had created a “dust bowl.”  Signs saying as much sprouted up on the farms bordering Interstate 5. Sean Hannity and 60 Minutes covered claims that restricting water use eliminates jobs and creates agricultural disaster, and in 2010 a federal judge decided to restore pumping in the delta.

At first, Hudson and other salmon supporters were overwhelmed by the water users’ success in affecting public opinion. The multi-million dollar farms could afford to hire expensive public relations firms and easily presented a united front. In contrast, the environmental groups, fishing organizations and tribal groups that wanted to protect salmon were small and fragmented. Out of work and his career on hold, Hudson became depressed.

“There were some tears involved,” he said, adding that he wasn’t alone. “I’ve seen some of the toughest guys you’ll ever meet breaking into tears that this beautiful way of life was gone.”

Then he remembered the Rhine River. When Hudson had learned to fish there as a boy in Germany, the river was basically a depository for Europe’s industrial waste. It stank so badly that Hudson and his friends joked it might catch on fire, “like one of those American rivers.” By the 1950’s once-thriving Atlantic salmon populations had all but disappeared. If Hudson and his friends were interested in eating thei­­­r catch, they fished a stocked reservoir instead.

Following a nasty chemical spill in the late eighties, a group of nations put aside centuries of dispute over the river to clean up the “Sewer of Europe.” Now, slowly, salmon populations are returning to the Rhine.

“When I see a bunch of different nations come together like that to clean up a river, I think we can do it in California,” Hudson said.

In 2008, he dreamed up SalmonAid. At first the idea was to hold a fundraising concert for out-of-work fishermen, but as he started talking to non-profits he’d gotten to know as president of the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association, the event became a way to present a united front for salmon. The first SalmonAid, at Jack London Square in Oakland, brought together two dozen organizations, from conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Bay Institute to the Karuk Tribe to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association to high-end restaurants like Sausalito’s “Fish.” Local chefs cooked wild salmon donated by a salmon producers’ co-op in Alaska. Musicians ranging from Captain Mike and the Sea Kings to Les Claypool lured in the public.

Jon Rosenfield, now president of SalmonAid, became involved as California coordinator for Save our Wild Salmon. At first, he said, many were skeptical that commercial fishermen could pull off an event with almost no funding and so many disparate groups. The fishermen were simultaneously wary of the environmental group’s motives. But soon, Rosenfield said, it became clear that Hudson “really had a way of building consensus.”  He was “an eloquent spokesman for salmon.” The event drew about 8,000 people the first year — a decent catch by most organizers’ standards. But Hudson said the real success lay in creating an ongoing coalition for salmon.

In his Berkeley back yard, Hudson sears coals with a propane torch to prepare for one of his famous barbecues. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

From the outset, Hudson’s activism has been more about beer, barbeque and bringing people together than waving signs.  On a recent Monday night, the 45-year-old is in his usual jeans and Hawaiian shirt, searing coals with a large propane torch. Hudson takes barbeques pretty seriously. Almost all the fisherman, biologists, environmental lawyers and tribal representatives interested in saving Pacific salmon have been to a cook-out in Hudson’s Berkeley backyard.

“You can go up to people with fact sheets and all this crap, but if you feed them salmon, they get it,” said Craig Tucker, Klamath River Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, who added that he’d seen Hudson’s strategy work firsthand.

Commercial fisherman and tribes haven’t always had the easiest relationship over salmon, as some have blamed tribes for declining populations. In the 1970’s, violence erupted in what became known as the “fish wars,” and for years hostility remained. Then Hudson came along, part of what Tucker calls “a new kind of commercial fisherman…who sees tribes as very powerful allies.”

Hudson got involved with the Karuk Tribe through the small boat fishermen’s association, and personally joined a lawsuit against an energy company with dams on the Klamath. And of course, he invited tribal elders over for a barbeque. “It came down to, we don’t have anything left to fight over,” said Hudson. “We had to get together to bring the fish back.”

By the time the first SalmonAid rolled around, Tucker said personal relationships were so good that the Karuk drove six hours to cook fish over the tribe’s traditional redwood flames.

When Hudson isn’t organizing the next SalmonAid, attending fishermen’s association meetings, or driving to hearings in Sacramento two or three times a week to testify for fishermen, he’s employing the trades he’s learned over the years – plumbing, electrical work or carpentry – to make ends meet. Things are different than they were three years ago, when he and Yvette were doing a relatively booming business at the farmers’ markets. Recently, Hudson has spent much of his day at a glowing computer in the corner of his garage, creating newsletters and developing the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s website.

Shaking his head with a rueful smile, he says “And really all I wanted to do was catch a fish.”

This November, Hudson bought a crab boat and will soon fish commercially for the first time in three years. He won’t be fishing salmon – yet – but he’s hopeful that, with a little more barbeque and blues, the salmon will start biting again.

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