has fished San Francisco Bay for nearly all of his 60 years. A lifelong San
Francisco resident who keeps his last name to himself, he recalls herring runs
in the 1970s the likes of which rarely, if ever, occur anymore.
remember herring spawns that went from Oyster Point all the way to the Golden
Gate Bridge,” says Pete, a former commercial fisherman, referring to the point
near Brisbane. He also remembers massive spawns that stretched contiguously
from the Tiburon peninsula out the Golden Gate to Point Bonita.
the fish still return. Each year between December and March, schools of Pacific
herring, Clupea pallasii, lay and fertilize their eggs in the Bay’s
shallow waters. When the fish gather at sites like Point Richmond, China Basin,
and the Sausalito waterfront, so do frenzied birds and pinnipeds, all feasting
on the sardine-sized fish. As the female herring lay their eggs on rocks, pier
pilings, and eel grass, the males release clouds of sperm that color the water
a chalky gray.
also attend large herring spawns. Recreational anglers fill buckets and coolers
using hand-thrown nets, while commercial gillnetters, who sell the bulk of
their catch for various industrial purposes, fill boats.
these spawns are a pale shadow of the massive events of the past. Veteran
fishermen say they’ve watched northern California’s herring, which also spawn
in Tomales and Humboldt bays, dwindle away.
used to see herring breezing the surface on the open ocean,” says Tom Baty, a
naturalist and lifelong resident of Inverness who has fished the Point Reyes
area since the 1960s. “But we don’t anymore, and we don’t find them in salmon
bellies anymore, either.”
a San Francisco Bay herring spawn tends to be a comparatively isolated event —
often limited to a single cove or a mile of shoreline.
figures from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife illustrate a long
downward trend, accented by periodic spikes in abundance. Average returns
through the 1980s, reported in estimated spawning biomass, hovered in the
50,000-ton range. By the 1990s, biologists’ estimates — which they base on
density and extent of egg deposition during spawn events — had dipped into the
fish staged a comeback of sorts early this century, with a record-smashing
spawn in 2005-2006 and another surge beginning in 2010, when estimated
abundance spiked to circa-1980s levels for four years.
then the numbers plunged to new depths, and since 2015 the herring have
trickled into the Bay. Returns have not exceeded 18,000 tons for six winters in
a row, and last year saw just 8,030 tons — the second lowest biomass on
record. (The lowest, 4,800 tons, came in 2008-2009 and is generally believed to
have been the result of the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.)
season, based on visible spawning events and accounts from recreational
fishermen trying fruitlessly to catch the herring, seems to have been one of
the worst years on the books.
one is sure what’s ailing these oily, nutritious pillars of the food web, but
different sources have different theories. Some blame overfishing, while the California
Department of Fish and Wildlife contends that the harvest rate is sustainable.
The department sets commercial catch quotas at less than 10 percent of the previous
year’s estimated biomass. It’s a squishy management system, but the
department’s herring team believe it works. Commercial fishing, they say,
likely dented herring stocks several decades ago. Using nets, the Bay’s herring
fleet used to catch thousands of tons of herring every year. Landings peaked in
the late ‘90s at 12,000 tons.
But the department, whose biologists declined to be
interviewed by phone, says the more recent decline has probably been due
to unfavorable ocean conditions.
“Since the early 1990s, environmental conditions off the coast of
California have been more variable than in previous decades, with more rapid
shifts between warm and cool conditions,” Fish and Wildlife’s herring team
wrote in an emailed statement. “This oceanographic variability has been
reflected in the increasing variance of the spawning biomass of the San
Francisco Bay Herring stock.”
the fleet generally catches a few hundred tons of herring each winter. The
females’ roe is sold to Japan as a delicacy while the rest of the catch,
including the male herring, is treated as little better than trash. Industry
sources say it’s mostly used as livestock and aquaculture feed.
food,” Baty recalls, was the euphemism that fishermen and Fish and Game staff
used for such herring.
Lombard, a sustainable fishing advocate who has gained some local fame as a
seafood foraging guide, believes the commercial fishery should have been closed
years ago, when the herring population showed signs of stress.
the fishery has gotten so bad that they’re putting limits on the recreational
catch,” Lombard says, referring to a decision to do so last year, “then why is
there even a commercial fishery at all?”
is not the first time that an apparent decline in herring population has
prompted concerns. In 2003, the Department of Fish and Game itself (now Fish
and Wildlife) sounded the alarm. By the department’s estimates, the Bay’s
herring population had crashed, and at a public meeting in Los Angeles in
August of that year, department biologist Becky Ota recommended that the
California Fish and Game Commission close the fishery. Fishermen lashed back.
They contended a closure was unnecessary and that Fish and Game was using
flawed methods for counting fish and eggs and was underestimating the biomass.
The commission sided with the industry and voted to maintain a generous quota.
few years later, estimated biomass spiked to its record high of 145,000 tons.
Fishermen who had argued just three years before that the department’s methods
for estimating population were flawed now stood by the sky-high figure as
evidence that the population was healthy. Commercial fishing continued, even as
herring numbers subsequently waned.
scientists, like William Sydeman of the Farallones Institute, stand by the
department’s diagnosis of the ailing herring population — that the dip in herring
numbers is the result of depressed ocean productivity. In recent years, warmer
surface waters have weakened upwelling cycles, depriving the food web of the
cold, nutrient-packed bottom water that drives the growth of plankton, on which
herring and anchovies feed.
Sydeman says he isn’t sure what’s causing the reduced ocean productivity.
it part of an ocean-warming cycle that will reverse naturally, or is it related
to human-caused warming?” he says.
are struggling elsewhere, too. Up the coast, all the way to Alaska, populations
have shriveled. A once-productive fishery in southern Alaska collapsed in the
1990s. It has failed to rebound, prompting a grim theory that the ecosystem,
perhaps more plastic than elastic, has simply re-stabilized as one without
British Columbia, activists have called for a ban on industrial herring
fishing, which they blame for the decline in several distinct populations.
Pacific Wild, a group based in Victoria, has argued that fishery managers, by
using the year 1950 as the baseline for abundance, are misevaluating the health
and stability of herring populations. The group contends that historical
abundance of the fish was far greater than presumed and that 1950s numbers
represent a depleted fishery.
fact, shifting baselines is a problem that affects fisheries everywhere. The
phenomenon occurs when successive generations of people lose sight of past
abundance levels and end up misinterpreting a depleted population of animals
for a thriving one. It’s a dangerous process that can cause misguided
management and further depletion.
the case of California’s herring, accounts from experienced fishermen remind us
of what once was.
could see these massive, massive spawns, where it seemed like they’d go on for
miles,” says Baty, recalling winter herring runs in Tomales Bay in the 1960s,
when he was a boy.
has been essentially no fishing pressure on the Tomales Bay population for many
years, but Baty thinks heavy commercial harvest in the past pushed Tomales
Bay’s herring into what ecologists call a “predator pit.” Facing growing
numbers of pinnipeds and cormorants, the fish just can’t recover, he believes.
Warrenchuk, a Juneau-based scientist with the advocacy group Oceana, suspects a
range of factors are responsible for ailing herring runs.
the cumulative impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss,
predation, and the lingering effects of past and present industrial fishing,”
Lombard, the ambiguity surrounding the herring collapse is exactly why fishery
overseers need to act cautiously and, at least temporarily, close the
“Given the state of
the environment, global warming, and the deplorable state of fisheries,”
Lombard says, “do we have the leisure anymore to assume that natural cycles are
causing this and that the herring will just come back?”
A native to San Francisco, Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist who writes about water policy in California, rivers and salmon, marine conservation and climate change. His work has appeared at NPR.org, Smithsonian.com, Yale Environment 360 and News Deeply, among many other outlets. When he isn't writing, Alastair is likely riding his bicycle uphill as fast as he can.