Herring fishermen denied in court

01/23/2014

A federal judge has ruled against commercial fishermen seeking an injunction to cast their lines into the bay. Sound familiar? No, this is not a story about Drakes Bay Oyster Company. For that, see page 7. This case involves the San Francisco Herring Association, which last April filed a suit in the Northern California District Court against the Interior Department, challenging a Golden Gate National Recreation Area policy that restricts commercial fishing operations in San Francisco Bay waters abutting federal land. Last Wednesday, Judge Jon Tigar defaulted to the federal agency’s position, writing that Congress clearly intended the waters in question to be under federal jurisdiction when the park began acquiring land. The denial of the injunction means that a quarter-mile around the park’s coastline, from Tomales Bay down to Ocean Beach, will be protected from commercial operations. In their initial complaint, the fishermen argued G.G.N.R.A. had broken 40 years of accepted herring harvesting and a tradition dating to the mid-1800’s. Frank Dean, the park superintendent, wrote that the 2012 ban was meant “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife of the parks, and at the same time to provide for public enjoyment of the parks in a manner that will leave them unimpaired for generations.” The fishermen disagreed with the rule, since the agency had never officially acquired ownership of the waters and therefore had no jurisdiction over them. Judge Tigar invited debate on the issue, even asking the State of California whether it claimed ownership. The fisherman also said their fishing operation, which focuses on pregnant herring valued for their roe, a delicacy in Japan, was environmentally sound since herring fishing could only be done by permit-holders capped collectively at around 3,000 tons of catch. They also suggested low levels of regular fishing could encourage the growth of younger generations, while the park’s restriction of available waters could lead to overfishing elsewhere. The injunction could have allowed fishing to continue this season until March, but Judge Tigar wrote, “The court is not in a position to determine whether the [herring assocation] or the federal government have the better approach to preserving the sustainability of the Pacific herring fishery.” Without proving that the balance of hardship tipped in their favor—the area is so small compared to the whole bay, Judge Tigar said—he denied the injunction, but said the fishermen still have a strong chance to present serious questions about the policy’s merits as the case continues.