In January, Nate Lee and his daughter Maya threw circular cast nets from the Ferry Point pier in Richmond and caught about sixty pounds of Pacific herring. Several dozen other fishermen were fishing with similar gear, all filling buckets and coolers with the six-inch fish. Hundreds of millions of herring enter San Francisco Bay in waves every winter to lay and fertilize their eggs, and predators of many sorts, from sea lions to birds to people, take advantage of the annual herring spawns.
Like many recreational fishermen, Lee pickled, smoked, and fried his catch. Mike Chin, an Albany resident, has also been catching and preserving herring this winter, as he has been doing for five years.
But for Lee, Chin, and hundreds of small-scale recreational fishermen in the Bay Area, the rules may soon be changing. Currently, there is no limit on how many herring that recreational anglers can catch. And commercial fishermen want fishery managers to cinch down on what they see as growing competition for — and possibly a threat to — the same resource.
"We're concerned that this recreational fishery is entirely unregulated," said commercial fisherman Nick Sohrakoff, chair of the local herring advisory committee, which helps manage sustainable fishing levels. "A lot of us have seen the pickup trucks pulled up to the water loading up ten garbage cans of fish."
Recreational fishermen dispute claims that they're overfishing — or that they're harming the commercial fishery. Herring fishing isn't necessarily easy, they note, and opportunities to catch the fish can be few and far between, so the total recreational harvest is small compared to the commercial catch. Plus, most recreational anglers eat what they catch.
Commercial herring boats, by contrast, use gillnets to snag hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of herring each season. Moreover, only a small portion of the commercial catch is consumed by humans: The females' roe is sent to Asia to be eaten as a delicacy in Japan. Much of the remaining tonnage is used for animal feed and fertilizer.
There is suspicion that some recreational fishermen are illegally selling their herring to restaurants and markets, which only commercially licensed fishermen may do. Most commercial fishermen, however, don't make such sales. Instead, they prefer to cash in on the Asian roe market. According to Sohrakoff, the herring are offloaded at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, driven to Turlock to be frozen, and finally sent to British Columbia, where they are processed for their eggs. The cured roe — called kazunoko — then goes to Japan.
Andy Roberts, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said numerous reports have come in this year of recreational fishermen driving away from the water with as much as 1,500 pounds of herring in their vehicles — almost certainly, he said, to be illegally sold. But no arrests, he said, have been made in such suspected activity.
Many more fishermen, he said, fill bucket after bucket with fish to be eaten at home. Roberts said the main problem with having no limit for recreational fishermen is that it's impossible to accurately estimate the harvest.
But only a relative few number of people fish for herring, and many take just a bucketful or less (according to Roberts, a five-gallon bucket can hold about forty pounds of fresh herring). Lee said he filled a small cooler with fish in January, and Chin said he takes home less than one bucketful each time he goes herring fishing — usually three or four times per season. Chin said that most herring fishermen he has observed take home fifty to one hundred pounds of fish at an outing.
Coleman Cosby, a recreational fisherman who lives in Richmond, fishes for herring once or twice per season and catches 100 to 150 fish, which he mainly freezes to use later for salmon and halibut bait. This is the first year that he and his wife, Kathy, who also fishes, caught a few extras to broil in the oven. Cosby also thinks the impacts of the recreational catch are being overestimated. For one thing, he said, most areas of the bay where herring spawn between December and March is completely inaccessible to shore fishermen.
"If any science showed that the recreational herring fishery was having a significant impact on the commercial harvest and the fish stock, then I'd be all for a limit," Cosby said. "But I don't want to see them arbitrarily impose limits based on fuzzy, anecdotal math."
Scientists consider the Pacific herring population to be healthy. In fact, it's so large, it's measured in tons of biomass. Many years, more than 50,000 tons of herring swim through the Golden Gate to spawn. Commercial boats are limited to no more than about 5 percent by weight of what scientists estimate spawned the previous year, according to Ryan Bartling, herring specialist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Sohrakoff said that not many herring boats are fishing in San Francisco Bay this year, because of the current low price for the fish. Together, this year's small fleet will be allowed to take as many as 750 tons of herring.
The recreational catch may be another 200 to 300 tons, though the actual figure — which is probably growing each year — is anyone's guess. "There is no reliable estimate — just back-of-the-envelope intuitive estimates," said Geoff Shester, California campaign manager with the ocean protection group, Oceana. "But I'm confident it's a small portion of the catch."
Shester and his organization are actively promoting the local consumption of herring — an objective the recreational fishery, with or without illegal sales to the retail and restaurant market, is currently achieving. In fact, Shester said he doesn't think there is a great need at this time for a limit on the recreational harvest.
"It's something we want to promote," he said, referring to recreational fishermen who eat what they catch. "It's a lot like subsistence, the idea that we can go out and use these ancient methods to harvest a local seafood meal from one of the few wild protein resources that is accessible, sustainable, and abundant, and with a low carbon footprint — we absolutely want to support this."
The problem, he explained, is that the state, in cooperation with Oceana and commercial fishermen, are trying to develop a long term Fishery Management Plan for San Francisco Bay herring. Such a plan would involve closely tracking the harvest rates. "So, it wouldn't be in the spirit of this plan to just let one component of the fishery, the recreational catch, go completely unmonitored," Shester said.
Bartling, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said any daily take limit will not likely be set for at least two years, as changing regulations requires a lengthy public input process. He could not specify how big or small such a limit might be, but rumors are circulating in the fishing community that recreational fishermen will eventually be limited to one five-gallon bucket of fish per day.
Cosby said a daily limit would almost certainly not impact him, since he takes so few fish. "But I have a problem when 10 percent of the fishermen who catch most of the fish want to put limits on others," he said.
Because herring enter the bay, spawn, and leave again in just a day or two, a forty-pound daily limit could wind up being a forty-pound yearly limit. "For a lot of these fishermen, they get one chance," Cosby said. "They have one big day to get the fish they want to put in their freezer to last the year."
Lee said the notion that a commercial industry is asking for limits on a recreational fishery that makes efficient use of a protein source strikes him as unfair. "Knowing that the commercial guys are selling only the roe for a higher price and grinding up the fish into animal feed, it's disgusting," Lee said. "I'm glad this resource is being utilized locally by recreational fishermen."