For the third straight year, the herring catch is strong after years of decline.
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 17½ 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.
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 Niño 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.