The herring boats that ply San Francisco Bay through the winter comprise the last commercial fishery operating within the boundaries of any American city. But the rich legacy of San Francisco's seafood industry is belied by today's economic realities: For decades, virtually all of the herring landed in San Francisco has been shipped to Japan, where they are stripped of their roe, which is eaten as a delicacy called kazunoko.
Among fish, herring — the meat, not the eggs — is rivaled only by cod in its historic and economic importance. Herring fisheries in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Baltic seas were a major food source for Europeans, many of whose descendants settled in Northern California. Before World War II, herring caught in the bay supplied all manner of snacks — pickled, salted, smoked, and more — to San Franciscans.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, the high price herring fetched in Japan drove fishermen to export their catch. Today the schools of herring that teem along the city's shores during the winter spawning season aren't even available for local consumption. To satisfy a craving for herring, you go to a Russian deli in the Outer Richmond District or the canned-goods section of a supermarket. You don't go to Fisherman's Wharf.
That's about to change. Ernie Koepf, a veteran San Francisco herring fisherman, is partnering with a seafood wholesale business to pioneer a local market for fresh herring this winter. At Koepf's urging, the California Department of Fish and Game instituted a change to fishery regulations that will allow permitted boats to land up to a ton of herring per day to be sold for meat from November through March.
The prior regulations were built around boats catching fish shipped abroad for their roe. Fish and Game environmental scientist Ryan Bartling said the rule change was supported by agency staff and is not anticipated to put a strain on the herring population, in part because only 10 permits are being issued.
Koepf and wholesaler Mel Wickliffe of Pier 45 Seafood are betting that increasedinterest in local, ecologically sound cuisine and sustainable seafood will drive demand. "I hope that [herring] will take its place alongside other local seafood products," Koepf said. "I've eaten it smoked, I've eaten it grilled, I've had it salted, I've had it pickled. It's a good fish."
It will also be an inexpensive one. Wickliffe estimates that the fish will sell for less than $2 per pound. "With the quality of chefs here in this area, they should be able to do some impressive stuff with it," he said. Tom Worthington of Monterey Fish Market, which operates out of San Francisco and Berkeley, says he has also been in touch with fishermen who will supply his outlet with local herring.
If it expands beyond a fledgling state, a local herring market could potentially be a boon for herring fishermen, who have seen herring prices drop from a high of $3,000 per ton in 1997 to $300 per ton today. Changing Japanese tastes, affected in part by an influx of Western cuisines, has led to a sharp decline in demand for kazunoko.
It remains to be seen how well the fish will sell. But Martin Reed, of San Francisco sustainable fish distributor I Love Blue Sea, doesn't think Koepf and Wickliffe will be short of customers.
"We've had quite a few customers ask us specifically about herring in the bay. I started looking into sourcing it, and it's really difficult," he said. Reed hopes the new supply of fresh herring will change that. "I don't think we're going to have an issue selling it, especially with the importance San Franciscans place on local seafood," he said.