Green Space: Saving the future of the herring fishery

“We’re not in the business to catch the last fish,” said Nick Sohrakoff, president and director of the San Francisco Bay Herring Research Association

It was a gold rush when Matt Ryan began fishing for herring in the San Francisco Bay during the 1980s. Thousands of tons of small silver fish arrived with the winter rains to spawn near Pier 80, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina Green. The season sparked a feeding frenzy for sea lions and sea birds, as well as a payday for herring fishermen who make up California’s only remaining urban fishery.

“San Francisco’s so unique,” Ryan, who is now president of the San Francisco Herring Association, told me. “Usually, you fish in the middle of nowhere. Here, you can take the tide off and go into town to have dinner and watch a movie.”

But the herring fishery, which was once one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world, no longer promises such a predictable bounty. Populations of the fish crashed. Markets for herring roe in Japan are dwindling. And pollution and climate change jeopardize the fish’s future. This is bad news for wildlife and fishermen, some of whom invested tens of thousands of dollars in herring permits.

Fortunately, luck arrived last month. A $1.8 million settlement between SFHA and Pacific Gas & Electric provided funding for a permit retirement program. At the end of April, approximately 50 fishermen who agreed to give up one or more of their permits received a check. The win for fishing families and the San Francisco Bay should serve as a model for other fisheries facing similar challenges.

“I think it’s important for fishermen to band together and go after people who contaminate,” Stuart Gross, a partner at Gross & Klein, which represented SFHA, told me. “The government’s not out there do it, so those who have an interest have to stand up and hold people responsible.”

Gross first represented fishermen after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Multiple fisheries — from Dungeness crab to herring to leopard shark — came together to hold the tanker’s owners and operators accountable for contaminating the marine ecosystem.

Only the herring fishery sued PG&E over its historic contamination of the Bay, however. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the energy company produced gas for lighting, heating and cooking at manufactured gas plants near the Marina Safeway and Marina Middle School. Although these plants shuttered in 1906, contamination still persists today.

The settlement with PG&E provided a solution to a challenge that had plagued the herring fishery for over a decade. Since 2007, fishermen, environmental nonprofits and state agencies had worked toward a management plan to protect the marine habitat and fishermen’s pockets. Paying fishermen to retire their permits not only promised more herring for sea lions and sea birds, but also helped the fishermen who plan to continue casting their nets.

“We’re not in the business to catch the last fish,” Nick Sohrakoff, president and director of the San Francisco Bay Herring Research Association and chair of the Director’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Herring Advisory Committee, told me. “Industry recognizes that we have to collaborate with environmentalists.”

Collaboration is actually commonplace. Last fall, for example, some crabbers voluntarily delayed the opening of Dungeness crab season until the risk for whale entanglements from fishing lines declined. Although the decision wasn’t easy on the people who depend on a lucrative season, fleets prioritized the long-term health of the marine ecosystem.

While this is certainly noble, it’s better when solutions are sustainable. Permit retirement provides such an answer. It’s true that some permits may be more valuable than others, and million-dollar settlements don’t happen every day. But fisheries should look for a variety of funding sources to fuel such programs, including holding polluters accountable and collaborating with nonprofits and venture capitalists.

“I think permit retirement is something other fisheries can look at,” Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me. “The balance is to find a reduction effort but keep profitability. It needs to be done in an equitable way.”

The victory for herring fishermen and the San Francisco Bay represents such a balanced approach. Hopefully, we’ll all see more days of bounty in the future.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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