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Fishery's Ebb Tide

With low quotas, meager hauls, fewer venture out for herring season

Jim Doyle / SF Chronicle 22dec00

Following the tides and using echo-sounding sonar to track small schools of herring after dark, fishermen are stretching gill nets along the bay's rocky shores and beaches.

It is herring season in San Francisco Bay, an extraordinary spectacle in the heart of a teeming megalopolis. Dozens of boats gather at the urban shoreline to net the silvery fish and their gold-colored roe, a delicacy in Japan.

Herring is San Francisco Bay's last remaining commercial fishery, other than a few boats that catch live bait for sport fishermen and researchers. But this year's catch is off to a sluggish start.

"We can't figure it out. We're hoping the fish are just late," said Joe Garofalo, who manages the herring catch for the Sea K Fish Co. in Sausalito. "Luckily, it's picking up."

The bay's herring fleet hobbled along for the last three weeks, pulling in only 50 tons of catch. The star-crossed fishermen cursed their luck, fearing that the long, cold nights on their bowpickers would not pay.

Katija Ivcevic, whose 32-footer, Winnie, was trucked from Puget Sound, sounded anxious. "It's hard to make a living. There's no price, a small quota, and no fish," she said in her thick Croatian accent.

Her husband and business partner, Ante Ivcevic, has fished San Francisco Bay and the Northwest for 30 years. "You have to be patient," he said. "The fish will come. Every day, there are more and more fish."

Sure enough, on Monday night the fleet netted 80 tons off Angel Island and Paradise Cay. The boats pulled in 200 more tons in the next two nights off PacBell Park and Potrero Hill.

Herring season runs from late November until mid-March, during which time herring enter the bay to spawn. In January, a fleet of 11 boats with special permits take part in the bay's roe-on-kelp fishery, hauling in kelp for the valuable herring roe deposited on it.

The bay's herring fishery is famous for its roe, called kazumoko. The tiny herring eggs are exported to Japan, where they are sold fancy gift packages and offered at restaurants. Herring remains are used for pet food and chicken feed.

Smaller herring fisheries exist in Tomales Bay, Crescent City and Humboldt Bay. But it is rare for a fishery to operate in an urban area.

Herring boats can be seen hugging the shoreline from the Embarcadero to the Sausalito bluffs and Emeryville mudflats. The local fleet works closely with ferry boat operators, shipping lines and pleasure boaters to avoid conflict. Herring boats cannot fish from Friday at noon to Sunday at dusk.

Wooden purse seiners have given way to smaller aluminum gill net boats, called bowpickers, with rollers on their bow. Fishermen mark the location of their nets with bright green and orange buoys. And their excited shouts and the whir of machinery can be heard on shore as herring are shaken from nets and placed in the hold.

Searching for mean tides (not too high or too low) and the sight of silvery flashes on glassy water on a moonlit night, the fishermen live for a "good pull" that will reel in a net carrying a full ton of herring.

Most of the herring boats hail from Monterey, Half Moon Bay and Puget Sound -- only a few from San Francisco.

Local herring boats and crews perform another valuable service: They are on call to aid emergency crews in protecting the bay's environmentally sensitive areas, such as wildlife refuges, in the event of a major oil spill.

But only 44 of the herring fleet's 105 boats are on the bay this year, a sure sign that prospects are dim. Some fishermen figured that, with the high cost of fuel and low quotas, they could not afford it.

Herring prices have fluctuated in recent years, ranging from $500 to $2,300 a ton, depending on demand overseas. This year, fishermen do not expect a high price.

"They're scratching along," said biologist Eric Larson of the California Department of Fish and Game. "A layer of herring can stretch for miles. It's not uncommon to see thousands of tons of herring at a time. But what we're seeing this year is in the hundreds of tons."

Some old-timers say that the herring won't enter the Golden Gate until the anchovies are driven out by fresh storm water that drains into the Sacramento River Delta.

Others theorize that the herring are already hiding in the bay's deep-water channels -- like behind Angel Island or in the Sausalito basin, or down around Anchorage 9 south of the Bay Bridge where freighters drop anchor in 60 feet of water.

Still others worry that recent El Nino warm-water cycles have reduced the herring fishery through malnutrition, predation and strange currents that have swept them away to exotic places.

An ocean-going, or palagic, fish, herring range from the central California coast to the Berring Sea. But herring that spawn in San Francisco Bay are believed to hover off the California coast.

The local fishery declined significantly during the El Nino year of 1996-97,

then made some gains during the next two seasons. Last year, it produced the third-lowest spawning biomass in 25 years. The herring were healthy, but there were fewer 2- and 3-year-old spawners.

"As far as the industry goes, it's a questionable business right now," said Fish and Game's Larson. "But we think it will rebound. We're managing it conservatively. . . . I think we'll meet the quotas, but you won't see a bonanza here."

The bay's herring fishery has been rated by the National Fisherman Association as one of the nation's five best managed fisheries.

To operate a sustainable fishery, regulators set strict quotas on each year's catch. This season's quota of 2,700 tons of herring is 10 percent of last season's spawning biomass.

State game wardens and Coast Guard personnel inspect the boats and monitor the daily catch.

Boats with two permits are allowed to carry two, 65-fathom (400-foot) gill nets, which must be 2 1/8-inch mesh. Big fish like salmon are supposed to bounce off the nets, while young herring and small fish pass through unharmed, and only herring that are at least 4 years old get entangled.

"There's very, very little by-catch," said Tim Fields, president of the California Herring Association. "Sometimes you might get a little crab. But I would say the by-catch is less than a half a percent."

Chasing after small schools of fish, the fleet can get bunched up.

"It gets kind of wild and crazy out there in tight quarters," said Mark Kuljis, a brawny fishermen who also runs a live bait business. "There are lots of nets around that want to be in the same spot. Sometimes, all you'll see is a buoy on top of a net."

Most of the fishermen know each other by first name. But it's a competitive business. Sometimes nets and anchors gets crossed, tempers flare, and a $1,000 net is sliced in half.

On Monday night, the fleet was fishing near a beach on the Tiburon peninsula when Kuljis' 40-footer, the Lori Marie K, hit a rock and damaged a propeller. It was almost worth it. That night, he and his crew, a curly-haired veteran who goes by the name of Purple Haze, pulled in 9 tons of herring.

The two-person boats are highly automated, but fishermen in waders, boots and thick rubber gloves are used to being out all night -- getting cold, wet and covered with herring scales and sticky roe.

"It's grueling," Kuljis said. "It's very demanding work, and most of it takes place at night when the fish are getting ready to spawn."

There's always gear to repair. Each season, a herring boat can go through a half dozen monofilament nets. And each day there are more rips and tears from rocks, fish and anchors that need to be sewn.

"The fish in the bay aren't quite ready to spawn yet," said Bob Rivera, who pumps out boats and coordinates trucking at Sea K's dock in Sausalito. Herring caught in deep water have green, immature roe that won't fetch a high price.

At dockside, a huge vacuum pump sucks the herring out of a boat's hold and lays them on a conveyor belt. The fish are then placed with water and ice in shipping bins and trucked to packing plants.

"It was a slow start, but it's an improvement over last year," said Kuljis, who is looking forward to January when, with any luck, larger spawns will occur off the rock walls of Sausalito and near the dock pilings along the city waterfront.

E-mail Jim Doyle at jdoyle@sfchronicle.com

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