Eric Risberg  /  AP file
These fishing boats in San Francisco Bay are out in search of herring, a small fish used as animal feed while females' eggs are prized in Japan.
updated 2/7/2005 10:53:27 AM ET 2005-02-07T15:53:27

Each winter, schools of silvery herring pass beneath the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to drop their eggs in the lushly vegetated corners of San Francisco Bay.

In recent years, however, scientists have worried about the health of the bay’s herring population. Fishermen also have found it increasingly difficult to earn a living in the bay’s last significant commercial fishery, but argue the herring population is healthy and state restrictions are the cause of their woes.

“Many fishermen have already quit,” said Ernie Koepf, 53, a commercial fishermen who heads the California Herring Association. “They’ve gone home to other fisheries. ... Many are saying, ’I just don’t think we’re going to get our quota.”’

Herring spend most of the year in the Pacific Ocean but schools of the fish visit the bay for up to four weeks each in winter months to spawn in underwater areas rich in vegetation such as eel grass and graciliaria.

Japanese market
Fishermen scoop the fish up in nets and sell them to buyers in Japan, where their prized eggs, or roe, are served at sushi bars. The fish themselves are processed into animal feed.

The situation for fishermen has not improved so far this season, which began Dec. 1 and ends March 11. Only 65 tons of a 3,440-ton quota have been caught with about 40 boat crews casting their nets.

State biologists cite a number of reasons for so few herring being landed this season, including fewer boats, smaller spawnings and undersized fish that are off limits. They say they are hopeful more schools will come to the bay during the remainder of the season.

“It’s too soon to sound the alarm bells,” said Becky Ota, senior biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. “It’s too soon to tell what’s going on this year with this population.”

But fishermen contend the herring population remains healthy, and they want the state wildlife officials to let them use gill nets with narrower meshes, allowing them to catch smaller fish.

Currently, smaller fish can pass through the 2 1/8-inch mesh required by the state. The fishermen want to reduce the allowable mesh size to 2 inches, a move opposed by state scientists.

El Nino's impact
State biologists have fretted about the fishery’s health ever since El Nino’s water-warming events seven years ago decimated the herring population, which still has not fully recovered.

In 2003, state biologists recommended the fishery be closed for a year to help stocks recover. Fishermen protested and the Fish and Game Commission voted to instead shorten the 2003-2004 season to two months and reduce the quota to 2,200 tons.

As scientists and fishermen debate the health of the bay’s herring population, a dwindling number of fishermen are trying to earn their livelihoods in a fishery that has only generated about $1 million in annual revenue in recent years. A ton of herring, which once sold for more than $2,000, now only fetches about $500.

“It’s a stupid way to make a living,” Koepf said. “You can’t even make a living doing it.”

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