When Life Gives You Herring, Throw a Herring Festival

Birds swarm around a herring trawler off Sausalito. Photo by Nora Sawyer

Birds swarm around a herring trawler off Sausalito.

Photo by Nora Sawyer

By Nora Sawyer, Sausalito Historical Society

In California’s coastal cities and towns, we celebrate our seasonal returns. San Juan Capistrano has its swallows, Monterey its monarch butterflies, and here in salty Sausalito we have our herring. The signs are unmistakable. It starts with vast flocks of cormorants, cutting long lines across the water in front of the morning ferry. Sea lions bark night and day, and pelicans circle overhead as vast schools of fish migrate from the ocean to the bay and lay their eggs on eelgrass and pretty much any available surface along the shoreline.

The return of herring to Richardson’s Bay long precedes our city’s founding. For centuries, Coast Miwok netted herring from boats made with tule reeds. Even as European immigrants drove Coast Miwok from their traditional homes, the herring remained.

Reading through historical accounts, the scale of the herring run seems at times like a tall tale. In December 1889, the Sausalito News reported that H.E. Boesen, keeper in charge of Olema’s Life Saving Station, “caught three herring in his hand” walking alongshore during a “hurried visit to our town.”

In 1955, “Swede” Pedersen reported to the Sausalito News that “an estimated 400 persons using nets of all kinds, hauled in tons of fish which they carried home to fry or pickle in brine.” In the tradition of Mr. Boesen, some fishermen tried to catch herring with their bare hands (with “modest success”), while novice fishermen, caught up in the excitement, “became overly anxious and fell from piers into the bay.”

In 1939, a profusion of gulls along Sausalito’s shores drew press from across the Bay. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the "invasion by night of more than 30,000 yelling, squawking seagulls” who “arrived to feast on the herring spawn laid in seaweed from Shelter Cove to the ferry slips."

Here on the front lines of the annual herring invasion, it’s only natural that we take time to celebrate their return. The earliest reference to a herring celebration I could find in the Sausalito newspaper archives was from an ad placed in the Sausalito Marinscope in 1983, in which city council candidate Dee Nelson voiced her commitment to preserve the Sausalito Art Festival, and mentioned that she would “even like to see a herring festival inaugurated next season.”

The idea had legs. Ten years later, professional entertainer and waterfront fixture Richard Aspen, also running for city council, proposed “The Sausalito Herring Festival,” an opportunity for “residents and visitors alike” to celebrate the herring season.

The notion was floated again in 2005, when Marinscope columnist Bob Winskill proposed a celebration with “a band, floats, a Herring Queen… the whole works.” Enthusiastic readers applauded the idea, inspiring Winskill to expand on the concept, suggesting a multitude of queens, including a “Drag Queen” to be promoted from among the trawlers, a “Canned Herring” nominated from those in local police custody, and a “Pickled Herring” selected from the denizens of Smitty’s Bar.

In 2013, the festival finally came to fruition. Organized by the Cass Gidley Marina Foundation, the event was the brainchild of board member Inka Petersen, inspired by the three-day Herring festival celebrated in her hometown of Emden, Germany. A celebration of the vitality of Sausalito’s waterfront, the festival featured herring dishes by local restaurants, live music and entertainment, and information on Sausalito’s local fishery and maritime history. And after so many years of anticipation, Sausalito was ready. The event sold out of herring in an hour and a half, and beer within two hours.

Wind and rain led to the cancellation of the festival in 2014, but it has continued every year since, with its latest iteration coming up on January 28th at the Bay Model. A fundraiser for the Sausalito Community Boating Center, this year’s event will feature a herring lunch, with screenings of the film "Sonic Sea," talks by marine experts, music by The Fishwives, and of course plenty of delicious herring, prepared and served by local restaurants. For tickets and further information, visit https://scbcherringcelebration.eventbrite.com.