Photos: Abner Kingman
Story: JP Lee
Dominic Papetti and his wife Karen set nets for herring in San Francisco Bay. They set along the Embarcadero, the shores in Sausalito. They set near the Bay Bridge and the ferry docks. It’s the roe they want, the eggs. In Japan, where most of the California roe goes, it is called kazunoko— a traditional dish symbolizing fertility and family prosperity.
The herring come in on the flood. They lay adhesive eggs among the pilings, rocks and kelp beds, all within the shadows of the city. The run begins in November and ends, typically, in March. Papetti is usually long gone before the Bay season has ended, trailering and then barging his 32-foot aluminum skiff from California to Southeast Alaska where he’ll fish the immense herring runs. He’s been making this seasonal run since 1976.
For herring, you get paid by the ton. Papetti’s boat can hold 18. Last year’s price for lean fish was roughly $500 per ton. But if you happened to get a set of fish heavy with roe, the price doubled. In 1979, the start of a huge roe-herring boom, the price climbed to over $2,000 a ton, making more than a few fortunes.
The Bay must’ve been quite a scene during those lucrative years. I’m willing to guess—I wasn’t there, didn’t see it—that the fishing effort exploded. When fishing is good and money is being made everyone wants to get in on it, especially when the fish are stacked up a five-minute steam from the fuel dock.
The quota last year for San Francisco Bay herring was about 3,000 tons. It wasn’t met—most serious herring boats were Alaska-bound before the run had ended. In 2012, only 33 boats chose to fish a Bay herring run estimated at 60,985 tons (well up from a record low biomass in the early 2000s of under 20,000). In 1980 the quota was 10,000 tons, and 430 permit holders worked on an estimated 99,600 tons.
The Japanese financed the boom. The value of the yen and an economy that wouldn’t stop rising made a gold mine out of not only the roe fishery but also, on the East Coast, butterfish and Maine urchins, and then, in the early 1990s, bluefin tuna. These species went from a domestic “why bother?” to a Japanese-import gold rush worth millions. And it all seemed to happen overnight: a few boxed tuna, a flat of butterfish, a bucket of herring roe, and a crate or two of urchins landed in Japan and hit the auction floor. Boom! Urchin fetched $100 a pound, bluefin averaged $18 to $32, butterfish went for a $1 (considerable when boats were putting down 75,000 pounds a night off Rhode Island), and West Coast herring roe hit $2,000 to $3,000 a ton.
Booms end, eventually. Some end quickly. Others go on and on. But they all end. (Think the Maine elver harvest will go forever?) Either the resource gets pounded and the stock dwindles to a little pile of scat. Or regulation catches up with the fishery, restricts effort, and freezes new entrants. Or consumer tastes change, as they do from generation to generation. Or the price stays too high for too long and buyers seek—and find, inevitably— cheaper substitutes. Or the economy tanks, the bubble bursts, the yen, dollar, euro sink like stones.
The herring come in with the flood. The spawn doesn’t happen all at once. It starts with a trickle, a few scouts ahead of the main push. At first, fishermen catch nothing but water, saying the timeless things fishermen say at the start of a season of anything: Soon. They’ll be here soon. Water’s too cold. Wind isn’t right. They’ll be here on the next moon. Then they start seeing a few in the net. A few tides later, they have a half ton, then another half ton, and another. Then, everyone’s covered in herring scales. The boats are covered. Deck, rails, down below. Scales in every corner, behind the electronics, under the floor mats. Half-tons have turned into five tons, ten. The fishing is good, day or night, bright days or cloudy. The run is on.
The herring stage in deeper water out in the center of the Bay. They wait for spawning cues, a biological alarm clock millions of years in the making. Then they swarm the shallows to spawn. The fish spawn in waves, starting farthest up the Bay. The ones thereafter drop down, closer to the mouth. Each push of fish spawns on a different piece of bottom. The fish don’t lay eggs on top of other eggs. They spread them out. After a big push of fish, days can go by before the next spawn. The fishermen wait, thinking about not only when, but where.
Dominic likes to set his gear—he’s allowed to fish two 65-fathom nets—in shoal water. He likes the sets closest to shore. Other guys will set outside of him. You’d think he’d be fenced in—that the outside nets would catch the inbound fish. But he’s a highliner. The shallows are where the fish want to end up and that’s where Dominic likes to be.
Photos by Abner Kingman at kingmanphotography
Story was made possible by a small contribution from Camilla Lee.