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Navigating the Delta: Holding on to a boating economy and culture

Lisa Morehouse
Portrait of Captain Barry Canevaro

Water is the defining feature of the Delta, and recreation on the water is a big part of the economy and culture of this place.

Visitors come for activities like fishing, wind-surfing, water-skiing, and house-boating.  The population just outside the Delta interior has grown significantly over the last 20 years, so it would make sense that the boating and fishing industries would have grown a lot, too. But they haven’t. That's why, in 2014 when I was reporting this series on the Delta, I met up with a sport fishing guide to find out more.

Onboard a fishing boat

It’s 7 am on a Tuesday morning and a boat named Fishing Fool 4 pulls out of a private dock in the town of Isleton. It’s loaded with poles and bait and four avid fishermen. The captain is Barry Canevero, who’s 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 five miles down the river, to fish striped bass and sturgeon.

Today’s cold water makes fish less likely to bite, but Canevero uses a sonar device called a Fish Finder to find the most promising location. He lowers the anchor, and his deck-hand (and son-in-law) digs bait out of an ice chest, cuts it, places it on hooks, 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.

Canevero 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.

Canevero 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,” Canevero says. “We were manufacturers. We built 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, Canevero says he’s really seen business go down, starting about 10 years ago, and it’s really fallen since the recession.

“We used to work every day. Now, if we could do four days a week we’d be happy,” he says.

He posits: if people are saving money, they’ll do less recreational fishing. Then there’s an added competition for business: locals who lost their jobs, who used to just fish for fun, have started trying to get some fish guiding work, too.  

“And then the fish are not there like they used to be,” says Canevero.

Scientists, conservationists, and state agencies say the fish population has been in decline for decades. That includes threatened and endangered salmon and smelt. Pollution and predator species could be factors, but for decades, the conclusion of many studies – and the opinion of the guys on this boat – is that the diversion of fresh water out of the Delta hurt fish, both at the pumps and because of changes in water flow.

The first dams and canals went up in Northern California in the late 1930s. In the ‘60s, pumps opened in the South Delta to transport water to the California aqueduct. Canevero and his neighbors are worried that the proposed tunnel project, which would start diverting water from the northern part of the Delta, could hurt the fish population even more. And local businesses – from sport fishing guides like Canevero to hotels, early-morning diners, bait shops, and gas stations – they all depend on customers who fish.

The View from the Marina

About twelve 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 fisherman.”

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,” Korth explains. Her Grandma would loan out  the boat for free to people looking to fish. “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 café and gift shop in the summer and store boats here year-round for water-skiing and fishing. Especially in the summer, 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.

But Korth says business has been tough for marina owners lately. Her records show their gas sales down 27% between 2007 and 2011, though it’s 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% at the worst of it.

So the Korth family offered discounts and promotions, cut back on some capital improvements, and added things like WiFi to stay attractive.  Her family’s 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.”

Water culture

Back out on the water, Captain Barry Canevero shouts to the owner of a nearby boat, 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 Canevero used to own and operate his sport fishing business with. Now he has just this one.

Canevero leaves the Delta for a month or two each summer, leading fishing trips up the coast. People have paid Canevero 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?

“Retire," he says, laughing. "I mean what are you going to do?”

Canevero’s 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?”  

The findings of the state-based Delta Protection Commission seem to substantiate Canevero’s concerns. Even though it predicts the population of a dozen counties around the Delta will grow by as much as 50% in the next 40 years, growth in boating recreation is not expected to keep pace.

This story is part of a larger series titled "Navigating the Delta." You can hear all of the stories in this series here.

Originally aired on Wednesday, February 26, 2014