Oil spill devastated Bay herring

As San Francisco Bay herring fishermen prepare to sit out the winter season due to a crash in fish populations, new data show that the majority of eggs laid near shore were killed or hideously deformed due to the November 2007
oil spill.

The eggs studied were exposed to toxins contained in the 54,000 gallons of fuel that gushed into the water after the Cosco Busan container ship crashed into a Bay Bridge tower.

Pacific Ocean herring are normally a prolific species of baitfish eaten by seals, sea lions, birds and other marine life, and they are caught in gill nets by fishermen who sell the roe to exporters.

Their numbers have plummeted locally and across California in recent years, prompting state regulators in September to cancel this winter’s commercial season.

All herring eggs laid on rocks, piers and eelgrass covered with oil from the Cosco Busan spill were virtually wiped out.

Eggs laid in other parts of the Bay were also heavily impacted by toxins contained in the oil, according to a draft report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The toxins, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, were detected in Bay shellfish in levels dangerous to anybody who ate them for four months after the spill, according to the report.

Impacts from the spill on similar fish species were likely similar to the impacts on herring, the report said.

The report was obtained by attorneys representing some of the herring fisherman in a class action lawsuit against shipping companies associated with the Cosco Busan, along with the bar pilot, John Cota, who was piloting the ship the day of the accident.

At the end of October, a judge set a September trial date for the lawsuit.

The report is being finalized as part of an effort to quantify the spill’s impacts. Researchers involved in the study are barred from discussing it due to pending litigation, according to NOAA counsel Christopher Plaisted.

Affected herring embryos died because they suffered deformed tissues or spines, or because their hearts beat irregularly, according to the report. Many died without hatching.

Less than half the sampled eggs laid by herring in Sausalito hatched, and 25 percent hatched at Peninsula Point, but all those hatched embryos were born with deadly abnormalities, according to the report.

Impacts were not as severe in Keal Cove, where less than 15 percent of eggs produced healthy fish, and further north in San Rafael Bay, where healthy fish hatched from 74 percent of eggs, the report showed.

Some of the fishermen represented in the class action lawsuit are descendents of Italian immigrants who settled near Cannery Row in Monterey, according to attorney Stuart Goss.

“They have deep roots,” he said. “This oil spill may well have completely annihilated that.”

jupton@sfexaminer.com

Declining fish population

Herring quotas are imposed each winter season based on population estimates.

Season       Population,in tons*
2002-03         3,540
2003-04         2,200
2004-05         3,440
2005-06         4,502
2006-07         4,502
2007-08         1,094
2008-09         1,118
2009-10         0

* Estimate

Source: California Department of Fish and Game

 

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