Where Have all the Herring Gone?

by Steefenie Wick

In the 1880’s the felucca was the dominant vessel plying the waters of Richardson’s Bay.  Today things have changed dramatically; the fishing industry in Sausalito is not the dominant force it once was. 

Seabirds flocked to Sausalito waters during last year’s herring run. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Seabirds flocked to Sausalito waters during last year’s herring run.
Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Captain Heather Richards, who in the past has been the force behind the annual Herring Festival, is even feeling the change.   She has a personal take on the situation, saying: “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.  The Bay is running warmer than usual, along with the rain producing runoffs that change the salinity of the local water.  Herring need shallow, sheltered rocks, with vegetation like eelgrass to lay their eggs where large wave action will not wash them away before they hatch.  Now, with the rise in the Bay’s temperature, the herring may be forced to travel further north.” Captain Richards’ point is well taken when even local residents notice a lack of herring fishing vessels off of Sausalito, yet the cries of the large seals still hang in the air.  Gone are the days of the flocks of cormorants, along with the brown pelicans that travel with the schools of herring.

And along with the herring the boat builders have also started to fade away.  The herring are leaving because of rising temperatures.  The boat builders leave because of the rising cost for shop space.

Captain Richards feels, “Currently, there are a dozen or so herring boats fishing commercially, a handful of folks throwing casting nests for personal consumption.  Industrialization of fishing along with the low market price has led to most of the fish going to foreign markets.”

This year there will be a change in the annual herring event.  Instead of the festivities of past years, this year’s event will try to enlighten the public on the current dangerous situation that is affecting our Bay waters, along with its inhabitants.

For several years Captain Richards has been the head of the Sausalito Community Boatbuilding Center at Cass Gidley Marina.  Their mission is to preserve a gathering place on Sausalito’s unique waterfront to engage and educate the public about our rich small craft heritage through affordable direct experience.  The community boating center will advocate environmental awareness, seamanship and safety, promote traditional wooden boats and maritime crafts and teach life skills through maritime education.  It will be a place for local maritime groups to hold classes, access the waterfront and build community through outreach.

This is also the same group that has for the past several years produced the Herring Festival event, which has become their fundraiser.   This year, they have decided to put together a smaller version of the Herring Festival, presented at the Bay Model Visitor’s Center. This year the event will spotlight the film “Of The Sea.”

The film deals with the issues that are now present for all Northern California fishermen, including sustainability.  The filmmakers hope to inform the public of what is at stake with the current conditions that plague the herring fishery industry.  Local herring fishermen will be on hand after the film to take questions.  Captain Richards and her group want to share with local residents the importance of the local fishery industry: its history, plus the importance of the Sausalito waterfront, in order for a better understanding of the significance of the current situation. 

Along with the film, local restaurants have agreed to participate once again producing delightful herring treats.  Chef Davey Jones is preparing herring roe dressing on green salad; Alfredo of Angelino’s Restaurant is preparing pickled herring crostini; Joinery, a new restaurant on the waterfront, will be serving Portuguese fisherman’s herring stew.

It’s interesting to note that at one time the herring were staple foods of Sausalito during the winter months. Now, with the exception of a few local restaurants, nearly all of the fish caught in local waters is shipped elsewhere for processing and consumption.

For more information about the event:  SCBC Sausalito Herring Celebration, Sunday January 29, 2017, Bay Model Visitors Center from 10:30 am to 4pm: you can check out the website www.cassgidley.org .