Dennis Deaver was doing his taxes late at night at home in Alamo, Calif., when he got an urgent call. It was time to hunt in San Francisco Bay.
The herring were running.
A school of the silvery fish had followed the tide in and were slathering millions of their tiny golden eggs in shallow waters near Tiburon. In days, maybe even hours, the fish would disappear back into the ocean.
By midnight, Deaver and two others were onboard the High Flier, chugging out of the Berkeley Marina to water teeming with the 6- to 8-inch-long fish whose eggs support the last commercial fishery in San Francisco Bay.
After years of decline that ended in the first cancellation of the season three years ago, the herring catch is having a third straight strong year, fishers and biologists say.
“The herring are coming back after a long-term erosion,” Deaver, a veteran fisherman, said as he pulled into San Francisco’s Pier 45 after a night of fishing – his gill-net boat weighed down by 17 1/2 tons of the fish.
“The upswing is good for us. It’s good for salmon, other fish, pelicans, sea lions and lots of things that feed on the herring,” Deaver said.
As a tube began sucking up Deaver’s catch near Fishermen’s Wharf, two sea lions rolled in the water and hundreds of gulls bickered overhead.
Pelicans floated nearby, gobbling any herring that dropped into the water.
Elsewhere around the bay, those who spend time by the shore have noticed the seabird feeding frenzy. Herring spawn in the bay four to 10 times a year, from December to March, on rocks, vegetation or docks near the shore from the Golden Gate to the East Bay, North Bay and South Bay. The fishing season lasts from Jan. 2 to March 15.
Dan Seifers, a Richmond, Calif., shoreline resident and charter boat owner, knew the herring were spawning nearby when he saw the birds gather off Miller Knox Regional Shoreline near his home.
“You see this sudden explosion in the number of seabirds in an area,” he said. “Then we see the birders who want to see the spectacle.”
A state biologist said the future is promising for herring, which were hurt by several dry years, the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, poor food conditions in the ocean and occasional El Nino ocean-warming currents.
“It’s looking good,” said Ryan Bartling, a marine fisheries scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We expect this upward swing to continue,” although there may be variation from year to year, he said.
The bay’s peak herring season was 1996-97 when 12,326 tons were netted.
From 145 to 754 tons of herring were caught in the bay each year between the 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons; none were caught during the season closure of 2009-10.
More than 1,600 tons were landed in each of the past two seasons. This year, it’s nearly 2,400 tons – 83 percent of the state-set quota, California officials said.
The prospects were good enough this year that Kevin Marilley trucked his boat in from Bellingham, Wash., to fish bay herring for the first time since 2007.
“It wasn’t worth the cost before to come here,” he said from aboard his boat.
In Sausalito, Calif., fans held a February herring festival to promote the fish as a local, sustainable food.
But while many bay birds and beasts crave herring, most of the seven million people who live around the bay don’t seem to care for them or their eggs.
It is far different in Japan, where the golden-colored roe harvested from the fish is a delicacy, especially among the older generation.
Japanese demand has softened in the past 15 years, though, cutting the prices paid.
“The younger generation would rather eat a Big Mac than fish eggs,” Marilley said.
Bay herring brought $302 per ton last year, a fraction of the $1,092 per-ton annual average since 1985, and the more than $2,000 per ton paid in 1997, according to state records.
The bay herring fleet has averaged $5.5 million per year since 1985.
With prices down, the bay’s herring fleet that once numbered more than 200 boats is down to about 35 – most of the fishermen are graying, experienced veterans like Deaver.
Deaver, 62, began commercial fishing in his teens and started to pursue herring as a deckhand in the 1970’s, when the industry was just getting off the ground.
He later branched out to more dangerous but profitable crab and salmon fishing in Alaska, and he still owns boats in that industry.
In the late 1800’s, the bay and the Delta were the foremost fishing centers on the West Coast. Fishers caught salmon, shad, striped bass and sturgeon. At their peak in 1882, 19 canneries on the Delta canned 200,000 cases of salmon.
Bay oysters were also harvested, luring oyster pirates like a young Jack London, who later wrote about the experience.
But environmental damage caused by overfishing, development, pollution and non-native species took a heavy toll. Over time, other commercial fishing faded away or was banned inside the bay. Only the herring fishers remain.
“We are kind of like the buffalo hunters, but there’s no reason not to keep fishing if the resource is there and properly managed,” Deaver said. “I like the challenge of finding the fish. And if the fish aren’t there, you can take in the boat and come back another day.”