History of Herring in Richardson’s Bay

An amorous herring couple, as imagined by an illustrator for Marin This Month Magazine  |  post by Larry Clinton

The annual run of herring off our shores is a phenomenon that’s come and gone over the past half-century.

Here’s how Marin This Month Magazine described the annual herring frenzy in January 1960:

Fish, fowl and the people of Marin will enjoy on various levels of ecstasy the annual herring run sometime during the first two weeks of this month.

The ecstasy on the part of the herring, entrepreneurs of the fête, can only be assumed for they are not loose-lipped about their emotions. But it is their nuptial run that starts the fol-de-rol. It lasts a few days or a week.

First participants are the herring scouts, who check out the wedding chambers… After getting the nod from the scouts, the brides swim in to deposit their eggs and then the husbands follow for the fertilization.

At the sight of the first scout herring the seagulls begin their clamor, banging the dinner gong for all their kin within the Bay Area. Along the shores and out in the waters thousands of seagulls gather to screech their gluttonous happiness and gorge themselves on herring eggs, brides and grooms.

And at the sound of the first screech from scout gulls, the shore-dwellers of Sausalito, Tiburon and Belvedere run for bucket and herring net. Casting their nets from rocks in the bay, or lowering buckets from wharves, men, women and children catch thousands of the bridal party.

But once the Japanese discovered the tasty roe from our seasonal visitors, the sleepy local fishery boomed overnight. As reported by author John Grissim in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle Magazine back in 1982:

Prior to 1971, Japan caught most of its roe-bearing herring in the Sea of Okhotsk. Early that year, however, Russia banned Japan’s herring fleet from those waters. The loss of this fishery, coupled with a dismal fishing season in the Bering Sea the following winter, sent Japanese wholesalers scrambling for a reliable overseas source. Their search led them to Alaska, Canada, and, finally, California, where the herring were not only of superior quality but spawned earlier than other stocks along the Pacific rim. San Francisco and Tomales Bay in particular appeared capable of supporting a major fishery.

Beginning each December and lasting until March, the Pacific herring (a more elegant version of the sardine, which it roughly resembles) swarms into this Bay by the millions.

From the onset a vigilant State Fish and Game Commission set rigid quotas on the amount of herring that could be harvested without endangering the resource. When studies showed the stocks to be far more substantial than first estimated, the quota gradually increased. In San Francisco Bay, for example, the quota grew from 750 tons in 1972 to the current high of around 6000 tons. Growing with quota was the price Japanese buyers were willing to pay. From $160 per ton in 1975, the ex-vessel price rose to $360 a ton in 1976, then jumped to $1200 a ton in 1977 as Japanese wholesalers became embroiled in a bidding war. Suddenly it became possible for a salmon or crab fisherman to re-rig his boat for gillnetting, work three backbreaking weeks, land 30 tons of herring, and collect a check for a whopping $36,000…

The Bay went bananas.  Although the Department of Fish and Game divided the nearly 300 vessels into two pontoons which would fish in alternate weeks to limit congestion, the place was still Dodge City…

In Belvedere Cove that season, residents of that posh inlet were treated to a nightly routine of diesel engine drone, CB  squawk from outside deck speakers, colorful language and spotlights beaming into bedrooms—not to mention a reported exchange of gunfire between boats when one argument allegedly turned into shotgun target practice…

Alas, in the late fall of 1980 Japanese housewives, fed up with retail prices as high as $28 a pound for kozunoku, launched a boycott. Within a week the market collapsed. Many Japanese wholesalers who had been speculating by buying huge amounts of herring, went belly up. In the Bay Area the ex-vessel price plummeted to $1200 a ton, then $500. In a rare show of unity, the Bay herring fleet went on strike, remaining tied up at the dock for several weeks until buyers grudgingly upped the minimum to $650 a ton. By season’s end some buyers were paying up to $200 a ton for quality fish. Most observers were convinced, however, that the San Francisco Bay herring fishery would never again be as lucrative as it had been during the bonanza winter of 1979-80.”

In recent years, the herring take has become more volatile, and the season was actually cancelled in 2010.  Last year, Captain Heather Richards, who has been the force behind the annual Sausalito Herring Festival, told the Historical Society’s Steefenie Wicks: “Historically, Sausalito has been a thriving part of the fishing industry, becoming one of just a few major locations for the annual herring spawn on the Pacific Coast.  Currently, the climate change is affecting the timing and location of their spawn. This year the fishermen are watching as the herring are spawning at a later time because of the weather change.”

Whether 2018 will be a growth year for herring remains to be seen, but at least we can enjoy the spectacle of herring fishing off our shore.