Bay Area herring fishers challenge federal ban

First oysters, now herring.

Bay Area Pacific herring fishermen are squaring off against the U.S. Department of the Interior to challenge a recent fishing ban, according to court documents.

In November, federal officials informed Bay Area fishermen that they would not be allowed to catch spawning herring in waters that abut protected Golden Gate National Recreation Area land. Since no federal law expressly permits fishing in waters off federal land, fishing is not allowed, GGNRA Superintendent Frank Dean wrote.

The Pacific herring commercial fishery, which began in the 1870s, is the last of its kind in the Bay. The silver-colored, 8- to 10-inch long fish’s value lies in their eggs, or roe. Processed roe is a staple in Japan.

In winter, the fish spawn in shallow coastal waters near estuaries. Fishermen nab pregnant herring as they head into these areas to spawn. The herring season in the Bay Area begins in January and ends in March, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

Attorneys for the San Francisco Herring Association filed a lawsuit last week to challenge the federal restrictions, arguing that there is no federal law on the books that expressly gives the Interior Department the right to regulate fishing or other activities in the coastal areas in question.

Fishermen argue that the restrictions actually harm the Bay’s herring stock; since the ban limits the areas in which they fish, they must fish for longer periods of time. That means younger herring are more likely to be caught, according to court filings.

In recent months, the Interior Department has wielded what the local seafood industry feels is a heavy hand. Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in Marin County was denied a renewal of its lease to harvest oysters.

The GGNRA runs from Tomales Bay near Point Reyes to Fort Funston south of Ocean Beach, and it includes much of coastal southwestern Marin and western San Francisco beginning at the Presidio.

Aside from Angel Island, there is little federal land inside the Golden Gate strait. Areas heavily fished for herring, such as Richardson Bay near Sausalito, do not abut federal land and are subsequently not affected by the ban.

Commercial fishing in the Bay is strictly regulated. Only fishermen with permits — 197 were issued last year — can pull herring from the water, and catches are limited to 5 percent of the total population. There is no fishing on weekends, and boats are limited to five days on the water at a time.

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