Shrimper: Tom Laine
Voices from the Field
by Kathleen M. Wong on October 01, 2004
Tom Laine knew the salt ponds long before they were making salt. “I was born here in 1937, and I’ve been on the Bay since I was five,” the Alviso native says. “I know what the Bay is supposed to look like.” He remembers the stands of tules and marsh grasses that once screened his little town from the expanse of San Francisco Bay. But by the time Laine entered high school, Alviso had traded its natural wetlands for flood protection and thousands of acres of salt ponds.
As a young man, Laine founded a business behind the new levees. He contracted with Leslie Salt to clear the ponds of trapped fish, then trolled their waters for coral-pink brine shrimp, towing a fine mesh net behind a raft. In nearly 25 years of working these ponds, Laine has netted a phenomenal harvest: One pond yielded 500,000 pounds of shrimp—used for fish bait—in 42 days. “Salt making enhanced my livelihood,” he admits.
But the ponds nearly suffocated the area’s few remaining marshes, says Laine. “Bay water never reached the marsh; it never got flushed.” Sediment from local streams piled up, burying the rocky habitat needed by local oysters and leaving the boats in Alviso’s yacht harbor high and dry. Even the South Bay’s once-brackish waters retreated before the freshwater discharge of local sewage plants.
Now restoration means that many ponds will be returned to tidal play. And Laine is among the stakeholders helping to shape the restoration plan. He’s been going to planning meetings for the past year, and intends to keep participating for at least another year or two. “My main goal is, everybody has to be able to use it. And the way it’s set up right now, it’s a win-win for everybody. The South Bay was once spawning grounds for halibut, striped bass, sturgeon, and smelt, which need brackish water, and they will come back. The birds are going to get to feed their babies on the brine shrimp ponds. The kayakers, walkers, and birders will all get to use it. I say open up the ponds and let the tides take them back.”
Today, Laine’s son has inherited the family shrimping business. Despite plans to restore some salt ponds, Laine is sanguine about the fishery’s prospects. “We’re not going to lose the brine shrimp. Many ponds will remain. As long as you keep the water moving, to bring nutrients in, it’s impossible to fish the pond out.”