Tough times for herring hunt

Commercial fishing rules are set to be relaxed this winter season, to help the Bay’s dwindling fishing fleet catch increasingly elusive Pacific herring after the population plunged to a new record low last winter.

The weight of herring that returned to the Bay to breed last winter fell 92 percent from the previous year’s estimate, according to a California Department of Fish and Game report, leading the commercial fleet to catch just 300 tons of its 4,500-ton quota.

The 300 tons of herring — caught by 24 fiishermen — only netted $240,000, according to department data and figures provided by fish trader Joe Garafalo.

Department commissioners will today consider relaxing rules to help lift industry profits this winter season, including expanded weekend fishing hours. The commission will also consider allowing the two-person boats to drift 3 miles from nets — up from 1 mile — to let them scour more of the Bay in the hunt for schools of herring.

It is also considering a quota of 1,100 tons — one-tenth of last winter’s estimated population. Department scientist John Mello said the department can’t accurately predict how many herring will swim back into the Bay to breed this winter.

The local herring fleet fell from more than 100 boats to roughly a dozen last year, largely because market prices collapsed after Japan’s economy crashed in the late 1990s, according to local fishing veteran Ernie Koepf.

Koepf, who plans to attend today’s hearing, says the commission should allow the fleet to use finer mesh in herring nets, because the herring are getting smaller and slipping through the nets.

There are a number of reasons for the ailing herring, scientists say. Bodega Marine Laboratory professor Gary Cherr says climate change is the likely culprit for recent changes to Pacific Ocean water currents that have prevented deep-ocean nutrients from rising to the surface, creating a food shortage that has reduced herring populations.

Cherr, a toxicologist and marine biologist, said the local population may have been devastated by high, undiluted levels of salt in the Bay during the dry winter of early 2006, which interfered with herring egg fertilization and which stunted the development of herring larvae and juveniles, making them more vulnerable to predators.

Herring play an important role in the Bay’s ecosystem, where they make up a key part of the diet of shorebirdsand bigger fish, said Cherr, who said their numbers can bounce back two years after a good winter breeding season.

jupton@examiner.com

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