Scientists to delve beneath the Bay

Tests scheduled for today are expected to reveal for the first time whether the floor of San Francisco Bay is contaminated with heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan.

About two-thirds of the 58,000 gallons of toxicshipping fuel that gushed from the container ship’s hull after it struck the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7 has not been recovered, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures. The fuel is up to 37 percent heavier than water, according to product safety documents.

Fuel on the Bay floor could kill the Bay’s dwindling herring fishery, a local fisherman warned.

“The herring have completely gone away” off the coast of Alaska, where the species disappeared in the years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Dennis Deaver said.

“We’re going to see fish come into the Bay this year,” Deaver added. “It’s a real concern whether their eggs will survive if the fish spawn on the oiled areas.”

The number of herring that return to breed in the Bay could fall every winter if their eggs don’t hatch, until they disappear completely, according to Deaver. This winter’s catch could be compromised if it’s contaminated by oil kicked up by fishing nets, Deaver said.

To test for fuel on the Bay floor, a biologist from the Department of Fish and Game will ride with Deaver and cast an anchored, 390-foot net into the water to see whether the net stirs up fuel, he said.

Herring caught in the Bay are exported to Japan, according to San Francisco fish trader Joe Garofalo, who said buyers will reject San Francisco herring if any are contaminated by oil stirred up by fishing nets.

About 300 tons of herring was caught in the Bay last year, according to a Department of Fish and Game report. That netted $240,000 for around 24 fishermen, according to figures provided by Garofalo.

The early-1990s Japanese recession forced down herring prices and reduced the number of boats that fish the Bay for herring from more than 100 to around a dozen last year, according to Garofalo.

Herring — a baitfish that feeds bigger fish and shorebirds — have been returning to the Bay undernourished and small in recent years from the increasingly food-poor Pacific Ocean, according to Bodega Marine Laboratory professor Gary Cherr. Their numbers have fallen locally because of high salt levels in the Bay caused by dry winters and by the export of fresh river water to Southern California, he said.

jupton@examiner.com

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