World's Best Bike Commute
Here Come the Herring

And the much loved komuchi konbun
January 20, 2011

This morning was both a Farallons morning and an almost-full-moon morning. From my vantage point midspan on the GGB, the Farallon Islands floated on the western horizon while, just north, the almost-full moon sank in to the Pacific Ocean. Awesome. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that we are denizens of a water planet, and also part of a planetary system…OK, that is a bit too heavy, sorry about that. Anyway, north of the bridge the morning started out chilly at 44° but warmed up to a balmy 54° by the time I coasted onto the Embarcadero in the growing light.

A week ago Monday it wasn’t so balmy. In fact, it was down right bone chilling. It was 38° when I hopped on to the saddle at 6:40 a.m. and it didn’t increase much the entire ride. Gorgeous, though. When I zipped through downtown Sausalito and eased on to that great open stretch of Bridgeway (with the water-level view of SF and the Bay) pandemonium broke out. Seagulls were everywhere, calling, shrieking, chasing each other and hovering, like that gas station scene in Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” (Repeat after me in a heavy Scottish accent: “It’s the end of the world.”) The birds were hovering over a dozen small fishing boats whose crews were stowing away nets, hauling chains, and just kind of clanking around in general—it was the morning after the first night of the commercial herring fishery in the Bay. Unlike the film, however, the birds over these boats were more interested in scoring a herring breakfast than causing a gas station inferno.

The Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasi) is a relatively short-lived pelagic species averaging 9-plus inches in length. Pelagic means ocean-going, that is, they spend most of their time in the open ocean foraging, only coming in to the Bay by the millions to spawn. The waters around Sausalito (and Tomales Bay in western Marin County) are two historic spawning grounds, though the fish can be hauled up from several locations in the Bay. It is a highly controlled and specialized fishery—some of the products go to Japan (the gold-colored roe or eggs from the females, komuchi konbun), but the fish can also be smoked, pickled, or end up as live bait for sport fishermen.

That swarm of birds was a spectacular reminder of how close we are to something amazing on a daily basis. Without the boats and the birds as indicators, who would know that millions of herring were under the surface, spawning, as they have done for millennia?

Have you ever seen the herring fleet, or eaten komuchi konbun?

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