People are fishing in Lake Merritt. Are you OK ?

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In December, the people of Oakland witnessed an extraordinary natural phenomenon: Chinook salmon swimming in Lake Merritt. These hardy fish have traveled hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to the rivers and streams of East Bay in an attempt to spawn. Some of them ended up in Oakland’s tidal lagoon, making it as far upstream as Glen Echo Creek. The salmon sightings have attracted more than just curiosity from naturalists and residents. Some people have started fishing in the lake hoping to catch a chinook.

But the increase in angling raises some questions: Is it even legal to fish in Lake Merritt? (The answer is murky.) And is it healthy — for fish-eaters and for the lake itself?

Lake fishing is not a new activity. People have long been known for recreational fishing and hook striped bass and bat rays that swim from the bay through the tidal gate near the southern tip of Lake Merritt. There was even a little fishing drama in 2010 when locals mistakenly thought that suspicious individuals were involved in commercial fishing operations at night.

But according to Oakland municipal codefishing is not permitted anywhere in Lake Merritt unless a person has “written permission from the park board.”

The problem is that the park board — which had the authority to spend money to build and improve Oakland’s parks in the early 20th century — no longer exists. Its successor, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, is less powerful in that it only has the power to advise city staff and the city council.

Oaklandside has contacted the city for more information on how to obtain permission to fish. A public information officer with the Oakland Parks and Recreation and Youth Development Departments said it was their understanding that no permits were granted for fishing in Lake Merritt.

Even if someone could get a permit from the city to go fishing today, they would only be allowed to catch two bass a day. The city law is not specific about what type of “bass” fish it refers to, but it is likely striped bass, or Morone saxatilis, which is native to the east coast but was introduced in our region more than 100 years ago by man.

Complicating matters is the status of the lake as a wildlife refuge. Mayor Samuel Merritt declared it such in 1869, and the California State Legislature made it official in 1870. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is also responsible for enforcing fish and game. regulations in wildlife sanctuaries, where fishing is not permitted.

A Chinook salmon recently caught in the channel that connects Lake Merritt to the bay. There have been several sightings of salmon in the lake following recent rains. Photo credit: Bob Noonan Credit: Bob Nounan

“CDFW Wildlife Officers would have the legal authority to enforce all laws and regulations at Lake Merritt, as would any law enforcement agency,” such as the Oakland Police Department or the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said CDFW Law Enforcement Division Captain Patrick Foy.

But while multiple law enforcement agencies could cite individuals for violating these rules, it is not clear that they are. We asked OPD if they quote people for fishing in the lake. The ministry did not provide a response and told us to file a request under the Public Records Act. CDFW did not respond to an email requesting this information.

On the question of safety, The Oaklandside was unable to speak with a fisherman from Lake Merritt, and we don’t know exactly how many people actually eat the fish they pull out of the lake. But James Robinson, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute, says he doesn’t advise it. “The bigger fish like striped bass and chinook salmon, which people are trying to catch, eat smaller fish,” Robinson said, “and if those fish contain mercury, which they do in large amounts in the bay, then the bigger fish accumulate more of these toxins and it is not good for us to eat.

Once upon a time people flocked to Lake Merritt to fish

Whether people are quoted or not, fishing in Lake Merritt is far less popular today than it once was.

More than a century ago, stories of giant fish being caught in the lake were common, and Oaklanders would flock to the lake whenever a surge of fish in the area was documented. In 1910, The Call from San Francisco reported that a man named Thomas E. Archer caught a record-breaking striped bass, leading other anglers to try their luck. “Word had spread that Lake Merritt was teeming with fish just waiting to be caught and eaten,” the newspaper said.

An illustration, featured in an article published by the San Francisco Call, depicting the fishing frenzy around Lake Merritt. Photo credit: San Francisco Call via the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research. Credit: Call from San Francisco via the Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research

In November 1910, journalists and others speculated that the presence of a large whale in the bay pushed a large school of fish into Lake Merritt. A journalist from Call from San Francisco wrote that the schools of fish “became alarmed and rushed tail between their legs into the Oakland Estuary through the floodgates and into the haven of calm, secluded waters of Lake Merritt”. In the weeks that followed, approximately 400 fishing licenses were issued by the city.

The town presented plans in 1918 to set up a hatchery in the lake which would again stimulate local interest in fishing, but the idea was abandoned. A similar plane to establish a fish hatchery emerged in 1998 and was touted as a way to repopulate the lake, after pollution in the 1960s decimated the fish population. It was also intended to generate excitement for the 2000 National Masters Rowing Championships, but was ultimately scrapped due to budget constraints.

In 1939, a disturbing number of smelt and bass were found dead in the lake, as reported The Oakland Grandstand. The cause at the time was a mystery, but it was thought to be the result of industrial waste dumped into the waters. Dozens of bass and other fish died at an alarming rate in 1949, thought to be the cause of an unidentified disease, possibly related to sewage.

Even as the lake environment became more polluted, recreational fishing remained a hobby for Oaklanders. In 1963, the fourth edition “smelt derby” was organized by the Cosmopolitan Lions Club, in which young people from Oakland competed to catch as many small sardine-like fish as possible. The winners of the senior and junior categories each received new bikes.

Members of the Cosmopolitan Lions Club posing for a photo with young participants in the 4th annual “Smelt Derby”. The organization was responsible for organizing the event. Credit: Oakland Tribune via Newspapers.com

But pollution continued to harm the lake. Perhaps the worst polluting event occurred in 1989, when a burst sewer line caused 250,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into Lake Merritt. In 2002, voters adopted Measure DDa $198.25 million bond measure to clean up and improve Oakland’s parks, waterfront and waterways, including the lake.

In 2006, then member of the Council Jean Quan and chairman of the Council Ignacio De La Fuente introduced and passed laws who petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to ban fishing in the city’s creeks, creeks, and freshwater waterways. Prior to this, fishing was legal on specific days each month. This ordinance was intended to help protect trout in local streams. The committee responded with ban fishing at Sausal Creek and other locations.

Fishing undermines Lake Merritt conservation efforts

Current conservation efforts by local organizations such as the Lake Merritt Institute have helped bring the fish back to the lake. The institute’s recommendation to keep the tidal floodgates connecting the lake to the bay open as much as possible allowed all kinds of wildlife to move from the bay into the lake and its tributaries. Cleaning the trash cans also helped.

Katie Noonan, co-chair of the Rotary Nature Center Friends citizens’ group, believes fishing in the lake can disrupt the fragile ecosystem, depriving other species like birds of food. “Removing baitfish from the lake upsets the balance of the community,” Noonan said. “The birds concentrate here, which makes them vulnerable if there is a lot of fishing activity.”

According to Robinson of the Lake Merritt Institute, discarding of fishing gear has also gotten worse this year.

“People flocked to the lake because of the salmon, so we found more [discarded fishing line],” he said. “We were encouraging people to stop because we were seeing lots of birds with fishing lines tied around them and finding decoys.”

Fishing in Lake Merritt is not advised, Robinson said, not because it’s illegal, but because it harms the wildlife that so many have worked so hard to welcome to central Oakland.

“I don’t think the solution is to go out and watch people,” he said. “I think we need to educate people who fish and make them realize that if we keep the lake healthy there will be plenty of fish for a long time.”

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