The southern channel of Lake Merritt, which connects to the bay. During high tide, people sometimes fish in this area for striped bass, rays, and more. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox three times a week.

In December, Oaklanders witnessed an extraordinary natural phenomenon: Chinook salmon swimming in Lake Merritt. These resilient fish traveled hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean up East Bay rivers and streams 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 attracted more than just curiosity from naturalists and residents. Some people started fishing in the lake in hopes of catching a Chinook.

But the increased angling raises some questions: Is it even legal to fish in Lake Merritt? (The answer is murky.) And is it healthy—for people who may be eating the fish, and for the lake itself?

Fishing at the lake isn’t a new activity. People have long been known to fish recreationally and hook striped bass and bat rays that swim in from the Bay through the tidal gate near the southern tip of Lake Merritt. There was even some minor fishing drama in 2010 when residents mistakenly thought that shady individuals were involved in late night commercial fishing operations.  

But according to Oakland’s municipal code, fishing isn’t allowed anywhere in Lake Merritt unless a person has “written permission from the board of park directors.” 

The problem is, the board of park directors—which had the power to spend money on building and improving Oakland parks in the early 20th century—doesn’t exist anymore. Its successor, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, is less powerful in that it only has the authority to advise city staff and the City Council. 

The Oaklandside reached out to the city for more information regarding how to get permission to fish. A public information officer for the Oakland Parks and Recreation and Youth Development departments said based on their understanding, there are no permits given for fishing in Lake Merritt. 

Even if someone was able to obtain a permit from the city to go fishing today, they would only be allowed to catch up to two bass a day. City law isn’t specific about exactly what kind of “bass” fish it’s referring to, but it’s likely the Striped Bass, or Morone saxatilis, which is native to the East Coast but was introduced to our region over 100 years ago by humans.

Complicating matters is the lake’s status 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 tasked with enforcing fish and game regulations in wildlife refuges, where fishing is not allowed. 

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

“CDFW’s wildlife officers would have legal authority to enforce all laws and regulations at Lake Merritt, as would any law enforcement agency” such as the Oakland Police Department or Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said Patrick Foy, captain of CDFW’s law enforcement division. 

But while multiple law enforcement agencies could cite people for violating these rules, it’s not clear they are. We asked OPD if they cite people for fishing in the lake. The department did not provide an answer and told us to file a Public Records Act request. CDFW didn’t reply to an email seeking this information.

On the question of safety, The Oaklandside wasn’t successful in speaking with a Lake Merritt angler, and we’re not sure just how many people are actually eating the fish they pull out of the lake. But James Robinson, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute, says he doesn’t advise it. “Bigger fish like the striped bass and Chinook salmon, which people are trying to catch, eat smaller fish,” Robinson said, “and if those fish have mercury in them—which there is a lot of in the bay—then the bigger fish accumulates more of those toxins and that’s not good for us to eat.” 

Once upon a time, people flocked to Lake Merritt to fish

Regardless of whether or not people are being cited for it, fishing in Lake Merritt is far less popular today than it once was.

More than a century ago, tales of giant fish being caught in the lake were common, and Oakland residents flocked to the lake whenever a surge of fish in the area was documented. In 1910, The San Francisco Call reported that a man named Thomas E. Archer caught a record-breaking striped bass, which led other fishermen to try their luck. “The word had been passed around that Lake Merritt was full of fish that were just aching to be caught and eaten,” the newspaper stated. 

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

In November of 1910, journalists and others theorized that the presence of a large whale in the bay pushed a large school of fish into Lake Merritt. A reporter from the San Francisco Call wrote that schools of fish “became alarmed and hurried with their tails between their legs up the Oakland estuary through the flood gates and into the haven of the placid and secluded waters of Lake Merritt.” In the weeks that followed, approximately 400 fishing permits were issued by the city. 

The city introduced plans in 1918 to set up a hatchery in the lake that would once again foster local interest in fishing, but the idea was scrapped. A similar plan to establish a fish hatchery came up in 1998 and was billed as a way to restock the lake, after pollution in the 1960s decimated the fish population. It was also meant to generate excitement for the 2000 Masters National Rowing Championships, but was eventually abandoned due to budget constraints. 

In 1939, a concerning number of smelt and bass were found dead in the lake, as reported by The Oakland Tribune. The cause at the time was a mystery, but was thought to be the result of industrial waste dumped into the waters. Scores of bass and other fish died at alarming rates again in 1949, thought to be the cause of an unidentified illness, possibly related to sewage. 

Even as the lake’s environment became more polluted, recreational fishing remained a pastime for Oaklanders. In 1963, the fourth annual “smelt derby” was held by the Cosmopolitan Lions Club, in which Oakland youth competed against each other in catching as many of the small, sardine-like fish as possible. Winners in the senior and junior categories each received brand new bicycles. 

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

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

In 2006, then Councilmember Jean Quan and Council President Ignacio De La Fuente introduced and passed legislation that called on the California Fish and Game Commission to prohibit fishing in the city’s freshwater creeks, streams, and waterways. Prior to this, fishing was legal on specific days each month. This ordinance was intended to help protect trout in local creeks. The commission responded by banning fishing in Sausal Creek and other locations.

Fishing undermines conservation efforts at Lake Merritt

Present-day conservation efforts by local organizations like the Lake Merritt Institute have helped bring fish back to the Lake. The institute’s recommendation to keep the tidal gates connecting the lake to the bay open whenever possible has allowed all sorts of wildlife to travel from the bay into the lake and its tributaries. Trash clean-ups have helped too.

Katie Noonan, co-chair of the citizens group Rotary Nature Center Friends, believes that fishing in the lake can disrupt the fragile ecosystem, taking food away from other species like birds. “Taking bait fish out of the lake upsets community balance,” Noonan said. ”Birds concentrate here, making them vulnerable if there is a lot of fishing activity.” 

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

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

Fishing in Lake Merritt isn’t advised, said Robinson—not because it’s illegal, but because it harms the wildlife that so many people have worked so hard to welcome back to the center of Oakland.

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

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.